It was no tremendous surprise when the Republicans lost big in November 2008. And yet, no one could have predicted the identity crisis that lay ahead for the G.O.P.
The party that once seemed as unified as a standing army has fractured into various camps. No one speaks for the party as a whole; instead, an array of minor voices battle for national attention. John McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain, writes a political blog (http://mccainblogette.com/), appears on talk shows, and promotes her vision of a socially liberal Republican comeback. Rush Limbaugh is still hosting the radio talk show he's done since the late eighties, and is still spouting his anti-immigrant, pro-patriotism, anti-taxation views. Somewhere in the middle, there is Michael Steele, the recently-elected chairman of the Republican National Committee. Loud-mouthed and hip with the youngsters, Steele has already offended conservative Republicans on multiple occasions. We may see him booted in the months to come.
The Republican Party is no longer the sacred brotherhood it once was. Whereas Barack Obama has shown an ability to connect with Democrats, Independents and Republicans of all stripes, the Republican Party seems incapable of bringing its splintered factions into a synergetic whole. One major problem is a lack of leadership. In recent weeks, journalists, newscasters and bloggers have all asked, "Who's in charge of the Republican Party?" A recent National Public Radio program discussed whether Rush Limbaugh -the ultraconservative radio show host- is the person in charge for the time being. (Listen to "Rush Limbaugh: Voice of the Republican Party?", at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101430572). How can it be that Rush -a ranting commentator whose average listener is 67 years old- is believed by some to be the most prominent voice of the Republican Party? And since Rush cannot possibly represent the majority of Republicans, who can?
A February 25, 2009 investigative piece in The New York Times Magazine spotlights a small consulting operation that promises to steer the Republican Party out of its present morass. Located on K Street (Washington, D.C.) in "an undistinguished box of a building," its consultants pursue a surprising mission: to restore Newt Gingrich to his former prominence in the Grand Old Party (G.O.P). ("Newt. Again," by Matt Bai, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/01/magazine/01republicans-t.html?fta=y).
"Newt", as he is often called, is a former Republican Speaker of the House who was incredibly influential in the 1990s. He lost his public standing through a series of gaffes and private scandals. Until very recently, a most ignoble public image has adhered to him; Matt Bai describes him as a "defeated revolutionary", "a has-been", "a holdover", "a mop-haired caricature", and "a crying infant". But in the summer of 2008, Newt began appearing on cable news shows. Republican voters had mixed feelings about John McCain, and some took comfort in listening to Gingrich, this powerful Republican from the past. Gingrich's call for extracting oil from the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska made oil-drilling the focus of the 2008 Republican Convention. Newt was back from the political dead.
Since John McCain's defeat last November, there is even talk of Newt running for the White House against President Obama in 2012. As Matt Bai reports,
It may seem inconceivable [...], the idea of this aging, white-haired holdover from the '90s going up against the incumbent Obama in 2012. And yet, in Republican Washington, the idea is taken quite seriously. "If you were going to make a list of 10 potential Republican nominees, Newt would be on any list," [Grover] Norquist told me. "He's probably in most people's Top 5." Twice during the course of reporting this article, I sat down in Washington restaurants only to hear the people next to me speculating about Gingrich's prospective 2012 campaign.
In an April 2009 speech at an undergraduate college in Missouri, Gingrich did not mention the possibility of his running for president. But he did speak about the 2012 elections, warning that a third party could form (as happened in 1992 with Ross Perot). This would no doubt spell success for the Democrats. (See a brief overview of his speech at http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2009/04/02/gingrich-warns-of-third-party-in-2012/).
Already envisioning Republican failure in 2012, will Gingrich rise to the challenge, and run for president?
For the first time in years, Republicans seem divided over whether to keep so-called "family values" at the core of their political platform. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, conservative social values (devotion to "traditional marriage", opposition to flag-burning and other acts of dissent, radical opposition to abortion) seemed to constitute the very soul of Republicanism. Seven years later, the moral fire may be dying down.
Of course, John McCain had "family values" voters in mind when he chose Sarah Palin, the spitfire Governor of Alaska, as his running-mate for vice president. Palin became a semi-autonomous force in the elections, hosting her own political rallies and touring the country independently of McCain. She drew enormous crowds, attracting people who expressed anger and fear about Barack Obama. Her supporters -devoted to religion, nation and "the family"- did not decide the election, but it would be a mistake to write them off now.
Despite the Palin phenomenon, there are indications that some ranking members of the GOP are questioning the political viability of entrenchment in "moral values". In mid-March, 2009, progressive op-ed columnist Frank Rich essentially declared the end of the "Culture Wars" that climaxed during George W. Bush's presidency. ("The Culture Warriors Get Laid Off", by Frank Rich, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/opinion/15rich.html?_r=1) Frank Rich begins with a flashback to August 6, 2001. On that date, Bush ignored an intelligence report entitled, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." What issues of greater importance, Rich would like to know, were occupying George Bush's mind?
[S]urely a big distraction was the major speech he was preparing for delivery on Aug. 9, his first prime-time address to the nation. The subjectwhich Bush hyped as "one of the most profound of our time" -was stem cells. For a presidency in thrall to a thriving religious right [...], nothing, not even terrorism, could be more urgent.
How things have changed since then! Religious feeling surged after September 11; evangelical mega-churches became larger and wealthier than every before. In some states, nearly every car on the road was covered in patriotic stickers. In many neighborhoods, American flags adorned every house, like the blood of lambs in the Book of Exodus. But there were no further terrorist attacks on American soil. And thus, people thought less about reproduction and national identity. And therefore, as Frank Rich continues, "When Barack Obama ended the Bush stem-cell policy [in March 2009], there were no such overheated theatrics. No oversold prime-time address. No hysteria from politicians, the news media or the public." Frank Rich has to wonder: "What has happened between 2001 and 2009 to so radically change the cultural climate?"
His answer is the economic downturn. He opines, "Culture wars are a luxury the countrythe G.O.P. includedcan no longer afford."
Opposition to stem-cell research has all but dried up. Republican "hysteria" has also died down on issues related to gay rights. President Obama will probably soon terminate "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", the Clinton-era policy that allowed homosexuals to serve in the military, but which forbade them from telling anyone that they were gay. Rich conjectures that, "When the [Obama] administration tardily ends don't ask, don't tell,' you can bet that this action, too, will be greeted by more yawns than howls."
Frank Rich identifies the economic crisis as the principle cause for the cultural shift that we are seeing now. But another explanation would be the passing of time since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many Americans have lost touch with the fear, the xenophobia, and the extreme patriotic fervor that they experienced after America was attacked.
Indeed, certain conservatives express nostalgia for the aftermath of 9/11, which many Americans remember as a time of national solidarity and shared sense of purpose. In the current political climate, more and more people are acknowledging the shocking bellicosity and bravado of that period. Our behavior was, in retrospect, very embarrassing. In fact, both George W. and Laura Bush have, when pressed by interviewers, identified statements such as, "Bring 'em on", as the greatest mistake Bush made during his time in office. As The Los Angeles Times reported on November 12, 2008, Bush "regrets" the cavalier tone he frequently affected:
President George W. Bush said yesterday he regrets some of his blunt wartime statements over the course of the last eight years and wishes he had not spoken in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner a month after American troops were sent to Iraq.
"I regret saying some things I shouldn't have said," Bush told CNN's Heidi Collins in an interview aboard the USS Intrepid in Manhattan when asked to reflect on regrets over his two terms. "Like 'dead or alive' and 'Bring 'em on.' My wife reminded me that, hey, as President of the United States, be careful what you say."
("Bush says he regrets some of his wartime statements", available at http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/ny-usbush125923358nov12,0,7522995.story)
There you have it: even former President Bush has denounced the headiness and testosterone of that post 9/11 moment. And yet, certain Republican pundits and commentators yearn to recapture the magic of those days.
In early 2009, Steven Colbert, host of a political and media satire TV show called The Colbert Report, brought some disturbing nostalgic tendencies to light. Colbert slammed Glenn Beck, a right-wing pundit on the Fox News Channel, for promoting the mystical return of "September 12, 2001": the day after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers.
On this particular episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert rolls an incredible tape of a weeping, emotional Glenn Beck, addressing his archconservative TV audience "through tears and spittle". Beck sobs before the camera,
We weren't told how to behave that day after 9/11, we just knew. [...] It was right, it was the opposite of what we feel today. Are you ready to be the person you were that day after 9/11, on 9/12?
(Video available on the progressive blog and news website, The Huffington Post, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/01/stephen-colbert-rips-apar_n_181673.html)
Glenn Beck's so-called "9/12 Project" is a testament to an existing Republican awareness that a traditionalist social agenda can best advance in an electric, mixed atmosphere of fear, loss and sentimentality. Hear more of Glenn Beck, and of Fox News, in a National Public Radio piece entitled, "Fox News Thrives in an Age of Obama": http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102254703).
Glenn Beck, along with other popular radio and TV hosts such as Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, represent an enduring attachment to a moral values movement that seemed unstoppable in the mid 2000s. And yet, there are indications that significant actors in the Republican Party and its media machine may doubt the political potential of cultural conservatism. One evidence of that nationalist sentimentality is waning is Michael Steele, the new, highly controversial chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). Steele is not weepy and nostalgic, nor pugnacious, nor willfully close-minded; he is, instead, somewhat "laid-back". This guy is one cool cat. At least, that's the image he would like to convey.
Opposition to abortion has been a honored tenet of contemporary Republicanism, and it is a bit too soon for pro-choice Republicans to begin speaking out. Michael Steele, however, dared to voice support for abortion rights. And, not surprisingly, conservative Republicans were livid. Rush Limbaugh called for his head. On March 13, 2009, The Seattle Times reported,
This was supposed to be the week that Michael Steele, the beleaguered new national Republican Party chairman, got his groove on, as he might put it: from filling vacancies left by the mass firing he conducted upon taking office to issuing 100-day plans on how to make the Republican Party competitive on everything from fundraising to the Internet.
Steele found himself Thursday again explaining what he had meant to say, this time after a lively interview with GQ [Magazine] in which he seemed to suggest, among other things, that women should have the right to decide whether to have an abortion. "I think that's an individual choice," he said.
("GOP chief in hot water again, this time for abortion remark", by Adam Nagourney, available at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/politics/2008851370_steele13.html)
Abortion was not the only subject on which Steele's opinions strayed from "Party line". Homosexuality, he also declared, is not a choice; it's like being black, he proclaimed. Skin color doesn't change, and neither does sexual orientation, said he. Steele was going where no Republican had gone before.
As the Seattle Times reports, Steele also displayed an "edginess" (i.e. a savvy and risqué self-presentation) unusual for Republican spokespersons. We read in the Seattle paper,
The interview -in which Steele also appeared to stray from the view of many conservatives on homosexuality while offering a steady patter of edgy jokes and irreverent observations- rippled through Republican circles as soon it was posted on GQ's site.
One offended Republican was Mike Huckabee, the electric-guitar-playing pastor who ran against John McCain the Republican primaries of 2008. The Seattle Times quotes Huckabee's reaction as follows:
For Chairman Steele to even infer that taking a life is totally left up to the individual is not only a reversal of Republican policy and principle, but it's a violation of the most basic of human rights: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Huckabee's position -an ascription of constitutional rights to the human fetus- would have been, until very recently, a reflection of the views of the Republican Party as a virtual whole. But a more pragmatic strain is forming in the GOP. Unorthodox figureheads like Steele may spell trouble for the marriage between conservative Christians and fiscal conservatives. Michael Steele may not remain in his position for long (there is a movement within the RNC to eliminate his funding), but his liberal social views have been voiced, and other Republicans may catch on.
There is a common saying in America: "The only things in life that are certain are death and taxes." In a strange way, the expression refers to the current situation of the Republican Party. When all other values have faded from view, taxes remain real. Thus, instead of noisily protesting illegal immigration or gay marriage, some Republicans are attacking Barack Obama on his "socialism", i.e., his intention to raise taxes for the wealthy, create a government health care system, build speed trains and fund green technology. In April, 2009, so-called "tea-parties" begin springing up across the country. Presumably about taxes, these Republican rallies resemble the mob-like gatherings that took place during Sarah Palin's campaign for Vice President. The same reactionary poster-waving is there. Under the guise of taxes, a nationalistic fear of difference persists in asserting itself. God-fearing vigilantism has by no means gone away.
And yet, recent polls have shown that the majority of Americans now support gay marriage (read, "Signs G.O.P Is Rethinking Stance on Gay Marriage", by Adam Nagourney, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/us/politics/28web-nagourney.html). Americans' perceptions of race relations are also shifting in a positive direction ("Voices Reflect Rising Sense of Racial Optimism," by Susan Saulny, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/us/politics/03race.html?emc=eta1). As Bob Dylan sung in the 1960s, the times they are a-changin'. The Republican Party must decide how to adapt. Its conundrum: how to appease the people that Sarah Palin called "the pro-American regions of this country", without alienating fiscal conservatives, the young and the educated, Independent voters, and whatever disenchanted Democrats there may be.
For an engaging discussion among Republicans of these matters, listen to "Redefining the GOP is no tea party", posted on the NPR website at, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103257408.