A passel of punditry has emerged recently questioning whether the Republican Party will soon recover from the foreign-policy incompetence of the George W. Bush presidency. Some pundits foresee a long period of eclipse before the party will recapture the full confidence of the American people, so seared have they been by the U.S. fiasco in Iraq and the ongoing muddle in Afghanistan. Thus, in this view, the GOP’s fate is set—a long winter of minority-party status.
Perhaps, but not necessarily. Certainly, these pundits are correct in perceiving the magnitude of the blow sustained by the party when it lost its identity as the country’s most sober and adroit manager of U.S. foreign affairs. But these analyses miss a fundamental reality of U.S. presidential elections. They’re largely referendums, which means the GOP can recoup when—but only when—two things happen: first, an incumbent Democratic administration forfeits its standing with voters through a faltering presidential performance; and, second, the succeeding Republican president recaptures voter confidence with a winning four-year term.
The prediction of an inevitable dark period for Republicans was captured in three recent articles of note. An Iraq veteran and think tank fellow named Phillip Carter, writing in The Washington Post, notes that for three decades voters trusted Republicans more than Democrats on national security. Then came the Iraq War. "It shattered Republicans’ monopoly on national security and eroded service members’ allegiance to the GOP," writes Carter. He marshals polling statistics to demonstrate just how far the GOP has fallen when it comes to voter trust on issues of war and peace.
The Wall Street Journal’s veteran columnist Peggy Noonan weighed in with a column headlined, "Can the Republican Party Recover From Iraq?" She argues that the war and the 2008 financial crash "half killed" the party. "It’s still digging out," she writes, "and whether it can succeed is an open question." Noonan notes specific blows the party sustained from the war: It ruined the GOP’s reputation for foreign-affairs probity. It undercut the party’s identity as an institution of policy prudence and respect for reality. It terminated the party ascendance that began in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Given its unnecessary cost, it eroded the party’s image as a sound steward of the public fisc. And it established a neoconservative dominance within the GOP that cut off any healthy intraparty debate on war issues.
Perhaps the most trenchant analysis comes from Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative. Writing in his magazine, McCarthy posits the thought that we don’t have a two-party system so much as a one-and-a-half-party system, whereby one party dominates and the other is relegated to half-party status. Between 1969 and 1993, he says, the Democrats were the half-party, stumbling through the national debate and occupying the White House for only four years during that twenty-four-year period.
The Democratic eclipse began, says McCarthy, with Lyndon Johnson’s catastrophic Vietnam war, which split his party and set it upon a course that was culturally unacceptable to mainstream Americans. "There were," writes McCarthy, "concrete connections between the conflict abroad and the increasingly radical social movements at home." Veterans returned disillusioned and, in many cases, addicted to drugs. Blacks wondered why they were called upon to assume a disproportionate war role for a nation in which they didn’t enjoy full freedoms. Young people became radicalized as they sought to avoid the war—and then grappled with the implications of their avoidance maneuvers. Ordinary Americans—Richard Nixon’s "Silent Majority"—increasingly felt disoriented as old norms and mores crumbled.
In this civic stew, the GOP emerged as "the party of simple military competence, patriotism, and national unity….Normal…meant center-right and Republican." And now, adds McCarthy, the Republicans are threatened by the same fate that befell Democrats with Vietnam and the cultural and social upheavals that followed.
Republicans, he notes, are now split over Bush’s wars as deeply as Democrats once were split over Vietnam. And, like Democrats of the Vietnam era, Republicans now seem stuck in old thinking from their heyday—thinking that is increasingly passé with mainstream voters searching for an understanding of what has hit their country and knocked it low. Writes McCarthy: "Although the party still sees Ronald Reagan [when] it looks in the mirror, what the rest of the country sees is George W. Bush—much as post-Vietnam Democrats continued to think of themselves as the party of Franklin Roosevelt when in the minds of most Americans they had become the party of Johnson and [George] McGovern."
Indeed, McCarthy doesn’t see any way out of this political morass for the GOP. "The Republican Party may not be able to escape its McGovern phase, even if Democrats screw up (as they will) and we briefly get a Republican Carter. The party and the ideology soaked into it have lost their reputation for competence, and they’ve lost the emotional resonances that come with being the party of America: victory, prosperity, normality."
This is excellent analysis, but it bears some examination. The crux of the McCarthy argument can be summed up in the proposition that Jimmy Carter, the only Democratic president during the GOP’s twenty-four-year ascendancy, was doomed to failure, irrespective of his own political talents, because his party was neither cohesive nor strong enough to assure his success. Only the party-weakness perception sustains McCarthy’s suggestion that a future GOP president in the current political era will inevitably be a Republican Carter—i.e., one who lacks any chance of success, irrespective of whatever attributes he may bring to the office.
There is no doubt that the next Republican president will be handicapped by his party’s internal chaos and wretched reputation among voters, both products to a significant extent of the party’s foreign-policy missteps. But history tells us that strong presidents can reshape their parties just as their parties can bring down weak presidents.
Take Ronald Reagan, the man today’s Republicans see when they look in the mirror. What may be forgotten is that Reagan was no establishment politician. Indeed, he was an insurgent candidate, running against the party’s established forces, who harbored plenty of chagrin at the prospect of his White House elevation. He defeated those forces in winning the presidency, under a "supply side" banner that set party insiders’ teeth on edge. Then he defeated them repeatedly in pursuing his tax agenda, his tough-minded stance toward the Soviets in his first term, his assault on federal spending and his plan to place intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
In short, he transformed the Republican Party, in the process bringing to the fold a large number of former Democrats disenchanted with their own party’s fumbling. And bear in mind that the Republican Party was not exactly riding high based on its own record in its last presidential term, characterized by economic dislocation, revelations of governmental abuse and the greatest political scandal in the country’s history. There’s no reason to believe the party would not have brought Reagan down, as Carter was, had he failed to refashion it in his own image.
Or consider Carter, a leader who gets tagged almost universally with the adjective, "hapless." That haplessness no doubt contributed to his failure, even recognizing that the party he led into the White House did not offer strong or coherent support.
But suppose Carter had not muffed his relationship with House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neill but instead had brought to it a deft political diplomacy mixed with a steely toughness. Suppose he had embraced Congressman Bill Steiger’s call for a clearly needed reduction in capital-gains taxes instead of angrily resisting (and getting rolled). Suppose he had made Paul Volcker Fed chairman in March 1978, when he first had a vacancy, instead of installing the incompetent G. William Miller and thus losing sixteen crucial months in the fight against inflation. Suppose he had incorporated some carefully chosen elements of the emerging tax philosophy of lower rates in order to jump-start an economy caught in what was known as "stagflation." Suppose he had reacted to the Iranian hostage crisis with sufficient credible toughness to induce a release—or succeeded in a rescue mission, as Barack Obama succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden. Suppose he had been a true leader who managed to dominate events instead of a squishy figure buffeted by events.
In short, what’s to say Carter could not have done with his party—and the nation—what Reagan did to party and nation four years later, when the problems were far greater and the country far more unruly?
This suggests that, while parties can break their presidents, presidents also can remake their parties. That’s what all the great presidents did, on their way to political success—and historical acclaim.
The same is true with the Republican Party today. It will have a chance to govern as soon as the Democrats screw up in the White House. And, when that happens, the Republicans’ past ineptitude won’t matter much because voter action will be driven by the bumbling incumbent. Then that Republican president will have a chance to demonstrate strong leadership by first getting control of his party and then leading it and official Washington to effective and strong governance.