Does the Republican Party have a future? That’s the question under widespread scrutiny these days by pundits and politicians pondering the fallout from the partial government shutdown and related matters. And the conventional wisdom seems to be that the GOP could actually go under as a result of its role in the ongoing mess.
The conventional wisdom is wrong, as it so often is in Washington. True, the American people aren’t happy with the performance of House Republicans in the current imbroglio, and President Obama is thus positioned to score a tactical victory before the curtain falls on this latest shutdown drama. Indeed, the impact on Republicans in next year’s midterm elections could be quite negative.
But the course of American politics isn’t determined by such puny proclivities and silly-season scenarios as we’re witnessing in the nation’s capital today. Rather, it is driven by deep underlying questions about what kind of nation America is going to be and where the electorate wants to take it. No doubt the electorate doesn’t like the silly-season stuff, as polls amply demonstrate. But that’s secondary to the bigger questions facing the nation in a time of profound domestic and global transformation.
This reality of American politics can be seen in past instances when one major party or the other appeared to be so hopelessly out of sync with the American people as to appear on its last legs. As conservative commentator David Keene noted in his recent video interview with TNI editor Jacob Heilbrunn, pundits and pols at various times in the past wrote obituaries for the GOP—only to discover that they were premature.
One was after Barry Goldwater’s abject defeat as the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 against that masterful maestro of politics, the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson. Within four years, Johnson’s political fortunes plummeted amid an intractable war that seemed unwinnable, racial and student riots of fearsome proportions, and an economy that appeared vulnerable to the president’s guns-and-butter spending spree. The result was the resurgence of the Republican Party under that old has-been, Richard Nixon.
Another such instance was after Nixon’s tumble in the Watergate scandal and the huge Democratic surge that materialized in the subsequent 1974 midterm elections. The GOP looked powerless and moribund. Nixon’s Republican successor, Gerald Ford, could hardly sustain a veto during his time as a caretaker president. And, sure enough, in 1976 the country turned to the Democratic presidential aspirant, Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, to clean up the mess. It looked like a long-term stay in political Siberia for the discredited GOP.
But then Carter’s multiple failures and hapless leadership brought a resurgence of the Republicans in the person and leadership of Ronald Reagan, a man viewed by the conventional wisdom of that day as hopelessly too far right for electoral success, not to mention governmental success if he somehow managed to get to the White House. But Reagan confounded the conventional wisdom on both counts, becoming president and then becoming only the second president in the twentieth century to be twice elected and succeeded by a man of his own party.
What these vignettes of American political history tell us is that presidential elections hinge not so much on the internal dynamics of the opposition as on the actual performance of the incumbent. In this respect, Republicans have ample cause for optimism as they look forward to the 2016 elections and beyond.
Barack Obama may win the shutdown battle on points, but the 2016 fate of his party—and hence of the GOP as well—will be determined by his overall second-term performance. And, while it’s too early for definitive assessments, the president’s isn’t looking like a man in control of events. Indeed, as I have noted in these spaces previously, his reelection margin—just 3.68 percentage points—reflected a performance only barely in the category of "eligible for rehire." Only three presidents were elected a second time by smaller margins, and all had disastrous second terms (Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush). That is not the kind of victory that puts significant wind into the sails of a second-term presidency, as we’re seeing with Obama today.
But if this is grounds for a measure of optimism on the part of Republicans today, it is a kind of default optimism that shouldn’t generate much of a glow in their hearts or expectations. That’s because the view that presidential elections hinge on incumbent performance is a double-edged sword. A faulty performance by Obama might sweep the GOP back into power, but if the victorious Republican president can’t pull off a successful performance of his own, his party will be right back in the wilderness. And here’s where the Republican Party has ample cause for concern, as reflected in its performance on the shutdown confrontation—and prospects for even more ominous behavior in the looming debt-limit standoff.
In the case of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, for example, they didn’t merely gain office through the failed policies of their predecessors. Each in turn transformed the political landscape by creating new coalitions born of new political fault lines. Nixon brought the South into the GOP fold for the first time since the Civil War by pulling in the up-for-grabs Wallace vote of 1968, which was 13.5 percent of the electorate in that pivotal campaign year.
He was widely condemned for his "Southern strategy," as if a president ought to shun voters willing to support him and propel his party into the future. As it turned out, Nixon’s Southern strategy did far more to bring the angry South into the American mainstream than it did to infect the American mainstream with old Southern racism, as the critics had predicted. In any event, he won reelection with a margin of 23.2 percentage points, a far cry from Obama’s paltry 3.68-point margin.
Similarly, Reagan’s first-term performance earned for him a second-term victory margin of 18.2 percentage points. He did this in part by creating a whole new bloc of votes for the GOP—called "Reagan democrats." Who could have predicted, during Reagan’s prepresidential days when he was dismissed as a far-right political outlier, that he would craft a brand of politics that would lure large numbers of traditional Democrats to his banner? But he did, and therein lies a tale of presidential success. (Ever heard of an Obama Republican?)
But this kind of political success demands political flexibility, imagination, new ways of thinking that can break the old political logjams, and a high level of party discipline. And, while it’s true that these traits can emerge in any party only through the leadership of its presidential candidate and then its incumbent president, the current GOP poses serious questions about whether it is the kind of party that can yield up such candidate.
The party’s performance in the current brouhaha certainly doesn’t generate cause for optimism. We see in this drama a party that lacks discipline, that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to accomplish, that can’t put forth a consistent and coherent message, that can’t get its focus on the fundamental questions of our time.
Those questions are simply but ominous: This first is: What is the U.S. government going to do about the debt overhang—currently approaching $17 trillion—that is tied increasingly to runaway entitlements and threatens the financial stability of the nation? The second is: What kind of nation are we going to be—a European-style social democracy or a nation committed to traditional U.S. concepts of limited government and measured federal intrusion into the private economy?
Can the current GOP produce a 2016 presidential candidate who can scramble up the political fault lines of today in such a way as to generate a new governing coalition and thus break the country’s enervating political deadlocks on fundamental definitional issues? That’s the question facing the party in these harrowing times, and the party’s current performance isn’t producing much cause for optimism.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians .
Image: Flickr/ DonkeyHotey. CC BY 2.0.