Most attention in the U.S. Presidential elections has been given to the Democratic Party, and the wide schism revealed in its support base between supporters of Hillary Clinton (majority of women, Latinos, older voters, lower income, lower average levels of education) and Barack Obama (majority of African-Americans, younger voters, higher income, tertiary educated). It has been cast as “a standoff between the Dukes of Hazzard and the Huxtables” , but its fault lines are pretty clear. This cannot be said for the Republican Party going into the 2008 elections.
John McCain does not bring a strong hand to the election, although the ongoing saga of the Democrat nominee has helped somewhat. There is usually a change in the governing party after eight years of one President holding office. While this was not true in 1988, George Bush gained the presidency with Ronald Reagan having a personal approval rating of about 60%. George W. Bush has a personal approval rating below 30%, and sinking. Even if his approval figures were better, this would be no guarantee against change. Bill Clinton left office with personal approval ratings over 60%, but his Vice-President Al Gore could not defeat the Republicans in 2000.
The position of the Republicans as a party is far worse than that of John McCain as its presumptive Presidential nominee. Having lost control of both the Senate and the House in the 2006 mid-term primaries, they have recently experienced three major losses in special Congressional elections. The most recent loss was in a presumed safe seat in Mississippi, where there was a 20% swing to the Democrats. Several Republican analysts have warned that the Republican ‘brand’ is ‘dog food’, and if it were a product it would be taken off the shelf.
Reasons for this are many and varied, and go well beyond commitment to the War in Iraq. Basically, the Republicans in Congress have been sinking with the Bush presidency, and the sense of malaise and policy failure that surrounds it. The question is where John McCain goes in relation to it.
McCain has some distance from Bush, and has accentuated it in recent times with a speech in New Orleans condemning how Hurricane Katrina was handled in 2005, and a recent speech (sort of) acknowledging the threat of global warming. The question, however, is not simply one of personal style and belief, but goes to the heart of where America’s conservative party wants to be over the next decade.
The question revolves around two axes. One is economic. Conservatives view the fiscal profligacy of the Bush years with horror, as it has combined large and regressive tax cuts (which they would otherwise support) with a big increase in government spending, not just on the war in Iraq, but also on a wide range of social programs. They see that as reversing the ‘Reagan doctrine’ and recreating a culture that all social problems are addressed through more government spending, throwing fiscal conservatism out the window, ad denying them any real point of differentiation from the Democrats. Moreover, the groaning fiscal and trade deficits adversely impact on foreign policy. The recent tax cuts to avert economic recession were described a “Borrowing more money from the Chinese to pay for oil bought from the Saudis.”
The other axis is cultural, or what are also termed ‘faith and values’ issues. McCain has recognized the problems that arise from the Republicans being tied to the evangelical Christian right, particularly with younger voters – he has made thirteen appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which conservative pundits such as Bill O’Reilly would dismiss as a show for “stoned slackers”.
A move to the cultural centre would be to follow what might be termed the ‘Arnie strategy’. As Governor of California, the largest state in the U.S. in both population and economic terms, Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the nation’s most politically successful Republicans. Schwarzenegger e governs what is otherwise now a Democrat state – even though it is the home state of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan – by recognizing that the social liberalism of the state and aligning this with economic conservatism and pro-business policies.
The centrist ‘Arnie strategy’ appeals to McCain, and makes a lot of sense in an election where the Republicans now have a real opportunity in capturing the vote of Hillary Clinton supporters if Barack Obama is the Democrat nominee and they can position Obama as ‘too liberal’. The catch is that the support base of the Republicans – from Christian lobby groups to influential donors to the bevy of conservative columnists, radio talk show hosts and TV pundits – have run so long and hard on a conservative ‘culture wars’ position that they will feel let down by a Republican nominee who does not align to these values and positions on their favoured ‘hot button’ issues.
The silence of all sides (McCain, Obama, Clinton) on the California Supreme Court decision to overturn the ban on same-sex marriages indicates how tricky these issues are becoming. They are much more complex for the Republicans than the Democrats, since making a big issue of such decisions in order to mobilise the conservative base has been the sine qua non of Republican politics for decades.
McCain’s dilemma, and how he addresses it, will influence the shape of conservative politics worldwide for some time to come, just as the ‘Reagan revolution’ has been a defining influence globally for the last 30 years.
PS: To get a sense of how hard it may be to retrain Republican supporters from well-established habits, see conservative talk-show host Kevin James’s responses to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on whether talking to political enemies is the same as appeasement, which apparently ‘energized’ Hitler in 1939.
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