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The Long Road Back, Part One
Absent huge Democratic mistakes in the next few years, the Republican Party's road back could very well be a long one. They just suffered their worst Presidential defeat in 44 years, and have now suffered crushing defeats two elections in a row, a rarity in American history. The Democrats have more ideological control of Washington than any time since the mid- 1960s. The Democrats themselves have thoroughly modernized in the past few years, building a very 21st century and potentially durable coalition, discovering the first new electoral map of this new century, employing the very latest and very potent tools to speak to and engage the American people, and have become fully focused on the big issues the American people now face. The center-left movement is also regenerating, and has created an investment and entrepreneurial capacity that has a very good chance of building a truly powerful and modern ideological movement to complement the modernizing Democrats. And of course, the Democrats are led by a thoroughly modern man, America's first true leader of this new century, Barack Obama, who so far has shown uncommon leadership potential for a man so young and so new to the national stage.
The Republicans, on the other hand, seem unnaturally comfortable sticking to their once successful but increasingly anachronistic ways of the 20th century. Their politics has become more reactionary than conservative, as if their party's great task has become to nostalgically but angrily fight against the emerging realities of the 21st century rather than embrace them. Their coalition no longer works in the changing demography of the day, and is dangerously old; their Southern Strategy, so critical to their ascension, has become a relic of the past; their tech and media tools have not kept up with the times; their ideas have become spent and discredited; their leaders, particularly in Washington, seem content to ankle bite rather than lead. They are an aging and frayed bunch, living off the fumes of a day and politics gone by.
At this point, I really believe there is a strong argument to be made that the GOP is further from power, more discredited and more out of touch with the American people than any time since the days of FDR and Truman. The GOP's challenge isn't a moderate-conservative one, a North-South one, a black-white-brown one - it is a forward/backward one. They succeeded in dislodging the Democrats in the late 20th century. They blew their shot in this decade to build a durable majority. Their government failed at a level that has done grave and lasting damage to their brand, and their leaders seem firmly grounded in an old politics that is simply no longer credible in this new day. They are going to have to go through a total overhaul. They will have to develop a new argument that meets the emerging challenges of the new century head on; a new electoral map; a new coalition that at some point begins to accept our fast-growing, non-white population; and competency in a whole new set of media and tech tools. They will have to shed the exploitation of race that has been at the core of their domestic politics; shed their raging intolerance of people not like them; of their comfort with politics and theater over governing; of the binary simplicity of the Cold War and the limitations of free market fundamentalism; and of a whole generation of leaders from Karl Rove to Mitch McConnell to Grover Norquist, who were schooled and evangelized in this breed of politics. This task is a big and complex one, harder perhaps than anything the right has had to do since the founding of the National Review in 1955.
And certainly one cannot expect this new modern leadership to come from the remnants of the old failed order that still controls the all too comfortable offices of the modern GOP and conservative movement. Rather, look hard at those governors on display last week in Miami for clues to the future of America's center-right. But as able as those governors are - Pawlenty, Jindal, Crist, Palin - one did not see an obvious President there, someone ready to take on Obama in 2012, and lead their Party from a deep and dark wilderness. Interesting folks, but no FDR, no Reagan, no Clinton, no Obama. Despite their claims, the GOP farm team seems awfully thin now, at least for the short term.
For the GOP it sure looks like a long road back.