What Coattails?

Published November 7, 2009


All year, leading Democrats from the president on down have argued that the Republican Party is in the midst of a catastrophic civil war. You know the story. Successive election defeats have narrowed the GOP's ideological range, and now an open struggle is afoot for control of its voice and agenda. Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, it seems, are out to destroy Republican moderates and commit the party to a radical course sure to relegate it to irrelevance. Only a move to the left can save the Republicans.

And, in fact, the new president and Congress had a real opportunity to divide the Republican Party. A moderate stimulus bill that offered a short-term boost and included a meaningful tax-cut component, for instance, might have won a very significant number of Republican votes in Congress last winter and launched a damaging internal GOP battle over the proper role of the opposition. Some restraint on taxes and spending in general, and on health care and energy policy in particular, would also have divided congressional Republicans and left the direction of the party in doubt.

But Washington Democrats chose a different route. While they have been peddling the story of Republican self-immolation, they have actually been creating the conditions for a Republican resurgence. President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid have launched the country on a course of massive spending, a dramatic expansion of government, and a slew of new taxes in the midst of a recession. Finding themselves in control of Congress and the White House and so possessed of an unusual opportunity to pursue their ideological agenda, they have sought to make the most of it. But they have misjudged just how far to the left of the country as a whole the Democratic base now resides — and so, rather than strengthen their own brand, they have inadvertently done wonders to build and unify the Republican Party.

In Congress, Republicans now march nearly as one, to a degree not seen in 15 years. Rather than split on the stimulus, conservative and moderate Republicans easily agreed that it went much too far to the left. The bill received zero Republican votes in the House and just three in the Senate. On many crucial votes since, and in the ongoing health-care and cap-and-trade debates, Republicans have stood together almost unanimously.

Around the country, the party seems to be regaining its balance. Last Tuesday's election results were an extraordinary boost for Republicans. They showed that it is not necessary to run away from the party's conservative brand to win elections. On the contrary, Republicans running as Republicans seem to succeed in the age of Obama, and to attract independent voters in droves.

In Virginia — which went for Obama last year, and elected Democratic senators in the last two cycles and Democratic governors throughout this decade — Republican Bob McDonnell ran as a practical conservative with an extensive policy agenda and was elected governor by an enormous 18-point margin. He produced concrete proposals on transportation and education but was also forthright about his conservative views on taxes and his opposition to abortion and gun control. In deeply blue New Jersey, which Obama won last year by double digits, Republican Chris Christie let the incumbent Democrat embrace Obama, refused to run away from his own party, and won the governorship decisively. He, too, is pro-life; he opposed gay marriage and even associated himself with several GOP governors who had refused to accept stimulus funds. Both Republicans won independent voters by roughly a 2-to-1 margin.

In the special election for New York's 23rd Congressional District, Democrat Bill Owens defeated Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman a few days after the liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava (who had run to the left of the Democrat on key issues) dropped out of the race. The peculiar circumstances of that contest, with prominent conservatives supporting Hoffman over Scozzafava, have been taken by Democrats eager for good news as proof of a Republican breakdown. The day after the election, White House political adviser David Axelrod even went so far as to say that the victory “should be reassuring to Democrats.”

But, in fact, the message of that race was largely the same as those of New Jersey and Virginia: in this political climate, Republicans can win by nominating an identifiably Republican right-of-center candidate in tune with local voters. It seems clear that had they done so from the outset in upstate New York they would have won there, even though Obama won the district comfortably last year. For decades, almost no New York Republicans have been elected without the endorsement of the state's long-established Conservative Party — that dynamic in this case hardly indicates new divisions on the right — and Republican leaders this year clearly erred by choosing (without a primary) a candidate well to the left of the district. Even so, Owens defeated Hoffman by a mere 4,218 votes, while Scozzafava, who withdrew at the last minute but still appeared on the ballot, received 6,986 votes. And every poll of the district in recent weeks suggested that the same uneasy mood prevailed there as in New Jersey and Virginia.

That mood is the crucial fact of this moment in our politics. It does not signify a mass migration into Republican ranks, only deep anxiety regarding what the Democrats are up to, and a renewed openness to hear what Republicans have to say. It means that Bush fatigue is in the past, early signs of Obama fatigue are emerging, and Republicans have an opportunity to win independents again if they can speak to their concerns.

Last week's elections won't fundamentally transform our politics, but they will likely help the GOP continue to build its strength. They will persuade some serious Republicans around the country to run for Congress next year, now that it's clear that serious Republicans can win. That is just what happened in the first midterm elections of the last Democratic president's term: most of the winning candidates in the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress decided to run only after seeing Christine Todd Whitman and George Allen win the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia in 1993.

The results will also make some moderate Democrats very nervous about the health-care and cap-and-trade bills being pursued by their leaders. Both bills are political risks — support for the health-care bill hovers around 40 percent in recent polls and a small majority opposes it, and the higher utility costs that would follow cap-and-trade legislation would surely be deeply unpopular in much of the country. Both would have to be passed on essentially party-line votes, leaving Democrats answerable to voters for their consequences. In both cases, too, last week's elections will reinforce Republican unity.

The fact is, we remain a two-party nation. Republicans are not in the midst of a destructive civil war, any more than the Democrats were when they kicked out Joe Lieberman in 2006. When it comes to the major debates of the moment — health care, energy, the budget, even most social issues — the Democratic Party is far more divided than the GOP. Republican Party identification remains low (about 25 percent, compared with the Democrats' 35 percent), but in a country where 40 percent of voters identify as conservative and only 20 percent as liberal (according to a Gallup poll released last month), the more conservative party isn't going anywhere.

Rather than a civil war, we appear to be witnessing the beginnings of a significant Republican revival. The Grand Old Party is finding its footing again in Congress and the states, and behind the scenes there is a growing intellectual effort to develop the next conservative agenda — focused in particular on easing the burdens faced by middle-class parents and contending with the bleak long-term federal budget outlook. Much work remains on that front, but early indications suggest that th
is work — substantive policy development, seeking to apply conservative principles to the enormous problems of the moment — not only will help Republicans speak more effectively to middle-class voters, but will also help the party's conservatives and moderates hone their common voice. Issue by issue, it turns out they don't disagree all that much.

None of this means that President Obama has lost all his appeal, or that the Democrats don't have an opportunity to advance their agenda in the coming year. It does mean, however, that liberals in Washington would do well to let go of the Republican breakdown narrative, take a real look at the mood of the country and the state of their own party's prospects, and pull back to the center — or suffer the consequences.

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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