From the Dissenting Right

Bruce Bartlett, a traditional Republican who has dramatically broken ranks, diagrams the challenges the Democrats now face given their electoral victory. And he believes the GOP’s loss this November could create the split-government terrain the pa

Bruce Bartlett-a traditional Republican who dramatically broke ranks with the White House in his book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy (available here)-expresses his hope the election will become a catalyst for party renewal and redemption. In his interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, he explains why the GOP's loss this November could become its strategic gain in 2008.

TNI: You have written that a Republican defeat in the midterms could become a clarion call to a party that has diverged from its core ideals, and potentially enhance its chances for a 2008 victory. But which prominent Republicans do you see as torchbearers for these core ideals?

BB: Well, I think the political dynamics, given what happened yesterday, could create a change. As of right this moment, John McCain is still the leader, but I think he may adjust his strategy a little bit. In the last few months he's been appealing more to the Bush base of the party, and now he may distance himself a little and get back to the kind of maverick, more libertarian approach that he had previously. It may open up opportunities for new candidates to emerge. Allen, as you know, had been somebody people had talked about as a candidate. That's obviously finished. Some people like Chuck Hagel might be emboldened to take a run at the nomination. And perhaps others, I don't know.

TNI: So in your opinion, does this election signal a change in the political environment to be more hospitable to less intrusive government, more restrained spending and more restrained foreign policy?

BB: Well, it's more of a hope than an expectation, let's put it that way. In part it will depend on how the Republicans ultimately decide what the ultimate cause of their defeat was. If they decide it was just poor technical performance, and that there was nothing wrong with the issues, then they will act one way. If they decide it was all related to things like Iraq that were essentially outside their control, that's another. But if they decide it was because they were viewed as too close to the White House, too much under the thumb of the president, not showing sufficient independence, then that's another possibility.

We'll find out in coming weeks, and the critical place where this will be played out is in the leadership elections, especially in the House. I think there's going to be a strong desire to clean house and bring in an entirely new set of leaders, and we'll just have to see how that plays out.

TNI: Because there exists the possibility that Congress will not redeem itself, on either side of the aisle, what are the prospects for the emergence of an alternative conservative party facing off with an alternative liberal party? The emergence of third, fourth parties?

BB: It's always been my view that third parties per se are not viable in our system of government, because as long as the electoral college requires you to get an absolute majority, there's simply no place, you can't win with a plurality, so third parties always end up being spoilers. And what they tend to do more often than not is hurt the party that's closest to them ideologically. So, for example, Ralph Nader ended up hurting Gore and Kerry, and Perot ended up hurting the first President Bush. So, they are ultimately not viable, and you'd have to change the Constitution to make them viable.

What could happen, though, is that within each party the wings-the segments that are outside the leadership-can be rejuvenated and make more of a play for power. So I think that's where it will play out and it may lead to candidates running for president who otherwise might have considered themselves not viable. I think that's where you will see the discontent focus itself.

TNI: Any other thoughts on the elections?

BB: One thing I think that is important, and we sort of touched on it earlier, is I don't think this is all necessarily bad for the Republicans, in a sheer partisan sense. They were bound to lose sooner or later, and if you're going to lose it's better to lose in a midterm election than lose a presidential election. I think the Democrats' win this year may actually be the best thing possible for the Republican candidate in 2008 to continue to hold the White House.

People like gridlock. They like one party being in a position to check the other. And I think there's a possibility that the White House could be rejuvenated in the same sort of way that Bill Clinton was by the Republican victory in Congress in 1994. It gives them a foil, an opponent, somebody to run against the next two years. And there's also the possibility-even the likelihood that the Democrats-having been out of power for so long and being so much under the influence of the far left of their party (especially given that many of the new leaders in Congress are from the far left of the party) may come under intense pressure from their own constituency to take actions that are politically unwise. For example, bringing articles of impeachment against Bush over Iraq or whatever, which would be politically insane.

But they may have no other choice, just as the Republicans felt in 1998 they had no choice in that matter. How all this plays out is going to be fascinating to watch, but it's really hard to predict right now.

TNI: Do you think that the Democratic victory will allow the Republicans to split the blame on some of the more problematic policies-say, Iraq and the deficit.

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