Rebooting the Republicans

November 20, 2008 Region: Americas

Rebooting the Republicans

The GOP is in a bad spot right now, but that’s no reason to despair. As Obama comes to power, he’ll be tested on foreign policy—and his supporters might find him lacking.

The Republicans that are now offering their postmortem analysis on the GOP's November 4 catastrophe might find their scalpel hitting a nerve or two-on themselves. This is because there are very few Republicans who could exculpate themselves from the causes of the electoral trouncing of their party. One that could, Senator Chuck Hagel, has retired from Congress. All the same, the next few months will surely continue to feature finger-pointing and self-indulgent and self-promoting theorizing. The Baroness of the Base, Governor Sarah Palin, has been the object of some of the savaging, but targets have been wide-ranging, from Mitt Romney to Senator McCain.

Despite the scale of failures committed by the Bush administration, though, the GOP can take solace in the apparent voter backlash against both parties, if not the two-party system itself. Indeed, both presidential candidates campaigned on their independence from the party of their affiliation, with McCain and Palin upholding their "mavericky" bona fides and Senator Obama promising change not only from the current Republican administration but also from the record of his own party.

But the numbers for the Republicans do look especially grim. Four years ago, the parties were about even, with roughly 35 percent of voters identifying themselves as Democrats and 33 percent as Republicans. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2008, voters identifying themselves as Democrats rose one point to 36 percent-which seems a modest rise, considering the record of the outgoing administration. Voters identifying themselves as Republicans dropped six points to 27 percent. And if you add independents "leaning" toward a particular party, 51 percent of the electorate identifies with the Democrats, but only 37 percent with Republicans. The Democrats also took a clear lead among young people. Exit polls reported 66 percent of young voters voting for Obama. The only age-group McCain won majority support from was the over-sixty-five crowd.

Given that level of disaffection, a Republican candidate was clearly compelled to demonstrate his distinction from the Republican political machine, rather than to promote basic conservative principles, as Mike Huckabee has argued in his new book and rebuke to his party. Huckabee takes aim at McCain for, among other things, backing the bailout of financial institutions, but the Arizona senator was probably the best positioned to demonstrate his separateness from the GOP's establishment. Indeed, polls showed that McCain had been successful in creating a new political brand up until financial institutions began imploding. After that, McCain faced a greater challenge in de-linking himself from the Bush White House. Further, voters began to see Obama as the preferred candidate on foreign-policy issues, an area where McCain had prevailed before. This could be interpreted in a number of ways, but it may indicate that Americans, seeing their national economy in distress, did not favor a forceful, confrontational (and potentially costly) approach to restoring American leadership and credibility.

In addition, there is little reason to believe that the Bush administration will not continue to add to its mistakes and embarrassing setbacks in its remaining weeks. There has been a delay in the passage of a status of forces agreement, which would allow U.S. forces to remain in Iraq, culminating yesterday in a physical brawl between Iraqi legislators during a hearing on the legislation. Such ongoing issues also highlight, of course, how difficult Obama's task will be.

Obama successfully differentiated himself from his challengers by advocating for a more agile diplomacy and, in some respects, a more conciliatory foreign policy. In doing so, he won the support of dedicated foot soldiers that were crucial to his election. Those supporters will feel particularly betrayed if Obama succumbs to the centrifugal force of the so-called Washington consensus on foreign affairs-which does not favor talks without preconditions with the Iranian leadership. Indeed, in strictly policy terms, Obama's selection of Senator Hillary Clinton to head State makes little sense, given the daylight between the two on foreign policy. Though Obama has proven his even-tempered powers of persuasion, his erstwhile foot soldiers could generate national unrest-along the scale that President Nixon faced-if Obama does not deliver the change they expect. And even if Obama upholds his campaign proposals, he could be seen as exiting one military quagmire in Iraq only to become more entrenched in another in Afghanistan-a country that Obama has discussed only in the most general terms.

The Republicans can take some comfort in the fact that both parties now face considerable political risks. Still, it would be challenging to think of a single, deserving candidate (of appropriate age) to become the party's next hope. Then again, Obama did seem to enter from the ether.


Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.