Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Libertarians--Are you ready to capitalize on the coming Republican collapse?

Today Delaware Grapevine pointed out the significance of the Democratic win in the 14th District special election. State Republicans had pinned their hopes on capturing the late Jim Vaughn Sr.’s seat to reduce the Democrat majority in the Senate to 12-9, possibly placing them within striking distance of recovering their first majority since 1973.

Instead, with Bruce Ennis handing Joann Christian a heavy defeat, the special election necessary to replace him in the House opens up the potential for the Dems to reduce the GOP margin in the lower chamber to 21-20. There’s a real chance that within another two years the Democrats could control both houses of the General Assembly.

The long-term outlook for Delaware Republicans is actually worse than even this gloomy scenario suggests.

In 2000, of Delaware’s 503,613 registered voters, the breakdown was 42.6% Democrats, 34.1% Republicans, and 23.4% all others (unaffiliated and minor parties).

By late 2007, the voting rolls statewide had expanded by 60,506, with 60% of that increase going to the Democrats, while the Republicans garnered a measly 11.1%. In fact, between 2004-2007 the Republican registration totals actually dipped by 3,372.

Worse, for the GOP, while total Republican registrations increased only 6,692 as compared to 36,321 for the Democrats, that ambiguous “Other” category also swept upward by 17,493.

Plainly the voter base in Delaware is increasing, but the Republicans are not keeping up. Obviously statewide totals can be quite deceiving if you break things down on a county or district-wide basis, but once redistricting takes place in 2010 the whole game may change. If the Democrats have solid control of the General Assembly they will potentially, as Celia notes, “lock up a majority for the next 10 years.”

What’s happening?

Certainly there is interplay between local, state, and national politics going on here. It is not just in Delaware that the “Republican brand” is taking a licking. The bland sameness of the leading Republican presidential wannabes and the increasing attention being paid across the country to Ron Paul’s maverick quest for the nomination are symptoms rather than causes. So is George W. Bush, for that matter.

There are trends going on here that were not changed by September 11, even though our awareness of them might have been distracted by the war on terror and our military adventures into the Middle East.

Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party in the 1980s was primarily controlled by free-market libertarians (remember “trickle-down economics”?) with social and cultural conservatives (and their evangelical subset) firmly relegated to supporting roles. This—in combination with singularly inept Democratic opposition from Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale—allowed Reagan to pull in swing moderates and conservative Democrats.

What happened to the Republicans during the 1990s is often missed in the long shadow cast by Bill Clinton. Ross Perot managed to siphon a lot of the rank-and-file free-market libertarian Republicans away from George H. W. Bush (who they’d never really trusted anyway: “Read my lips!”). This left Bush the elder and then the hapless Bob Dole with no choice but to increasingly court the Christian right, although pride of place for unintentionally completing the transformation of the GOP should go to Newt Gingrich. His successful nationalization of the House elections in 1994 with the Contract with America finally placed cultural conservatives atop the elephant’s back.

For a much more detailed (and certainly more nuanced) analysis of this process, read Ryan Sager’s The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.

George W. Bush represented both the triumph and the ultimate disaster of evangelicals and cultural conservatives in control of a major American political party. Enough of Reagan’s fading cachet (helped along a lot again, I admit, by singularly incompetent Democratic opposition in 2000 and 2004) and public perceptions that the GOP could be better trusted to conduct the war on terror and safeguard the US helped a weak candidate scored two electoral victories.

But the process gutted the Grand Old Party, both nationally and in many states.

One of those states included Delaware, even though our local politics often runs in far different channels than national debates. A lot of people I speak to have no qualms declaring privately that either Bill Lee or John Burris would have been a more competent governor than Ruth Ann (although Dick Cathcart’s recent antics with insurance pooling remind us that sidetracking every issue in the world into a task force is not a purely Democratic tactic), but they all also admit that there was no way either Lee or Burris could have beaten her. Arguably, as much as I hate to say it, Mike Castle is still probably the only Republican in the state who could currently win a gubernatorial race (sort of the Bill Clinton syndrome in smaller relief), and even his appeal is starting to show the first cracks around the edges.

Perhaps it’s time to admit that the problem is not so much the candidates as it is the party.

Political parties in America have a lifespan, a fact sometimes camouflaged by the reinvention of certain parties under the same name. When they do disintegrate, they tend to do so as rapidly as the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Consider the Whigs, a major national party from the late 1820s until its abrupt collapse in the early 1850s. Its fragments—Know-Nothings, Conscience Whigs, and Free-Soilers—along with some conservative Democrats, coalesced quickly into the new Republican Party. In 1856 the GOPs first presidential nominee, John Charles Fremont, ran a strong race even if he was both a purely regional candidate and pretty much a loon. Four years later, the Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln out of a field that included nationally known politicians like Salmon P. Chase, William Seward, and Edwin Stanton. One of them had been Republicans prior to about 1854.

The collapse of the modern Republican Party is actually possible, but that collapse will require certain pre-conditions to be met, and it will begin at the state and local rather than the national levels.

Here’s the main pre-condition: there has to be an emerging political organization capable of developing into not a “third party,” but a “second party.” Over the past two decades the experiences of Ross Perot, Jesse Venture, Arnold Schwartzenegger, and Ron Paul suggest (no matter what you may think of any of these as individuals) that large numbers of Republican voters are aching for a chance to find an alternative to Bush, Dole, Bush, Romney, McCain, blah, blah, and blah.
Here’s the catch: that new political party has to organize from the ground up, not the top down. That’s why Perot couldn’t win, and why Ron Paul—no matter how personally successful he is throughout the primaries—won’t take over the Republican Party.

Parties are built in the districts and precincts, at firehouses, on school boards, in union meetings, and (in Delaware, at least) from the ranks of state troopers. Tip O’Neill was right: “All politics is local.”

Who is going to do that thankless, heavy spadework in Delaware that gets people—one by one—to think about changing their party affiliations?

I’d like to think it would be the Libertarians. As a political philosophy, libertarianism has the potential for exceptionally wide appeal. What could go wrong with mixing fiscal responsibility and a penchant for smaller government with the advocacy of maximum personal freedom?

A lot. Just the idea scares the hell out of an entrenched political, intellectual, and corporate class on both sides of the aisle that has gotten fat and happy telling other people what to do, taking their hard-earned money, and passing it back out as the spoils of victory.

I’d like to think that Libertarians would rise to the occasion, even though most of them by nature would prefer to sit in their own backyards and mind their own business.

But I know this: whether or not Libertarians become the Republican successor, somebody will. The GOP implosion has only started.

1 comment:

Alan Coffey said...

The Libertarian philosophy must be adapted to a local platform. This CAN be done, and in fact there are some high profile people working on this right now in Delaware.

There is so much for a libertarian to oppose in our current governance that we must keep our eyes on the positive in our message.

(channeling William Wallace here ;)