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April 27, 2005

GOP: The gathering storm

The NYT's Paul Krugman recently wrote a column called "The Oblivious Right" in which he argues that Republicans have found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion on numerous issues lately - judges, Schiavo, social security, you name it - because they talk only to their base, namely, "corporate interests and the religious right."  And, according to those guys, everything's fine.

It's an insightful column, as Krugman's usually are.  But I think there's a bigger lesson to be learned here from the dual nature of the Republican base and the party's recent miscalculations.  I think we are witnessing the beginning of a major implosion in the Republican party.  And here's why.

Republicans could not have won as many elections as they have won lately if they were just the party of the religious right, nor if they were just the party of the corporate elite (i.e., the rich).  They have to be both.  And the genius of what they've been able to do recently is appeal to both of these groups without really upsetting either - even though in many cases these two groups don't have a lot in common, and in fact should be on opposite sides of a lot of issues.

I would venture to say, for example, that many Christian conservatives are not wealthy people, that they probably don't benefit from the Bush tax cuts, and that they in fact are harmed by the Bush economic policies.  Similarly, I would venture to say that many rich Wall Street types couldn't care less whether women get abortions or gay people get married, that they probably know and work with (and may even themselves be) people who are pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and that they think government's most important job is to keep the wheels of commerce running smoothly and never mind all this "cultural" stuff which they see as a big distraction.

And yet both these sorts of people tend to vote Republican.  Why?  Because in both cases the Republican party has figured out how to appeal to what is really important to them.  The corporate crowd would probably prefer, on balance, to have a government that leaves abortions etc. alone, but it's much more important to them to have what they see as a favorable tax structure, favorable regulatory climate, and so on.  Similarly, the religious right crowd would probably prefer, on balance, that the government not screw them economically, but it's much more important to them that the government try to restore what they see as a moral compass - get rid of abortions, make life harder for gay people, more religion in public life, and so on.  This is why the central mystery of "What's the Matter With Kansas" - why do people keep voting for a party that is making them poorer - is really not that mysterious.  You can rationally support a party that does not act in your immediate economic self-interest if you think what the party is doing elsewhere is more important.  The abortion, etc. issues are so important to the religious right that nothing else matters much.  Same with the corporate elite, but in reverse.  (You can see variants of this on the left as well - e.g., there are lots of well-off lefties who don't vote Republican even though Republican policies would put lots more money in their pockets, presumably because they define their own self-interest more broadly than just having a larger balance in their checking account.)

The real beauty of the Republican strategy is that the two appeals don't have to interfere with each other.  The party can be all for tax cuts for the rich, a lax regulatory environment, etc., and still be pro-restrictions on abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-funnelling money to religious organizations, and the rest of the "cultural conservative" agenda.  It's worked brilliantly.

UNTIL NOW.  Because now what's happening is that the agendas are starting to converge - and in a very uncomfortable way.  The newly-emboldened religious right wing, no longer satisfied with making abortions and gay marriages incrementally harder to obtain, has started an all-out assault on the federal judiciary.  And in so doing, they are scaring the crap out of the corporate elite, who need stable, well-functioning, independent federal courts.  Remember, the corporate elite really like the federal courts - that's why they want to move as many state law tort claims into federal court as they can.  A weakened federal judiciary is the corporate elite's worst nightmare.  Similarly, the Bushies' assault on social security seems to be scaring the crap out of even people who ordinarily don't pay a lot of attention to economic issues - that is, people who have supported Republicans because of their stand on the culture wars, not the class wars.  The Bush administration's failure to appreciate how attached the American people (particularly the non-wealthy American people) are to social security has got to be one of the most colossal political blunders of recent years, and it is threatening to turn a lot of previously-reliable Republican "cultural issue" voters into persuadables for the Democrats.  No one, cultural conservative or otherwise, wants to see their grandma in the poor house, and while rich folks don't have to worry about that, a lot of other folks do.

Terri Schiavo figures into this too.  The Republicans' behavior in that extraordinary case of course scared the crap out of corporate elite Republicans (who really hate the idea of government telling them how to care for their sick family members).  But it also may have freaked out even some of the cultural conservatives, who while probably in sympathy with the anti-euthanasia position, were justifiably horrified by the Republican overreaching and hypocrisy.

The delicate balancing act, in other words, is starting to fail.  The natural enmity of the Republican corporate elite and the Republican cultural conservatives, for so long deftly managed by the national Republican party, is starting to take on a life of its own, and the party has no idea how to stop it.  Just look at poor Bill Frist - he's completely trapped in this nucular option business.  I'm guessing that no one regrets more than he does the fact that he is really going to have to do it - because he knows that when he does, he will have lost any shot he ever had at becoming President.  To win, you have to have more than just the cultural conservatives, and going nucular will freak the corporate elite.

Remember those old Star Trek episodes where Scotty radios up to the bridge and says something like "this thing is goin' ta blow up, and there's nothin' in the universe can stop it"?  It's kinda like that for the Republicans right now.  Scotty, of course, always found a way to avert disaster at the last possible millisecond.  We will know, and I think sooner rather than later, whether the Republicans have someone as good as Scotty who can defuse the coming internecine blowout.

Posted by David at 10:30 AM in National | Permalink


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I agree, pendulum is swinging. Like it always is.

Posted by: The troll | Apr 27, 2005 11:15:52 AM

Great post, but I think you left out one important pillar of GOP support: Foreign-policy GOoPers, like the "security moms". I hate to use these stupid media-created titles, but Bush would have lost spectacularly if not for the false impression that he was strong on national security.

And it's important to realize that as the horrors of 9/11 fade, and the horrors of the Republican Party get worse and worse, the majority of these people are no longer going to want to vote for the GOP.

Posted by: Ken M | Apr 27, 2005 2:47:38 PM

A good point about security moms. I didn't mention them because I agree with you: they're not a long-term part of the Republican strategy. The Republicans will lose them as they revert to being soccer moms, and there's really nothing the GOP can do about that. I also think, though, that unfortunately until that happens there is not a lot that the Dems can do to get security moms to vote Democratic. I think a big factor in the last election was this borderline irrational sense that it would harm our security to change leaders, even though the current leader was doing a demonstrably lousy job. It's really hard to fight against those kinds of impulses.

Posted by: David | Apr 27, 2005 3:04:17 PM

This is well, wrong. One part of your argument is basically this: Fiscal conservatives rely on the fed judiciary, and social cons are "assaulting" the judiciary. Therefore, conflict between the two sects. Well let's define how social cons are assaulting the judiciary: by placing more conservative judges on the bench. Conservative judges generally have two key characteristics, they're socially conservative and they're fiscally conservative. Where then is the conflict? If you believe that the rhetoric of the social cons is scaring the fiscal cons, don't fret. Fiscal cons(those that are only fiscally conservative and not at all socially conservative) aren't going anywhere. The only thing that scares them worse than Delay's rhetoric is Kennedy's rhetoric.

Posted by: JMoore | Apr 27, 2005 10:05:47 PM

Conservative judges generally have two key characteristics, they're socially conservative and they're fiscally conservative.

If that's who DeLay, Frist, et al. were trying to put on the bench, then I might agree with you. But I reject the suggestion that the judges being filibustered (and, more importantly, the ones that the theocrats would really like to see appointed) are "conservative" in any meaningful sense of the word. They are radicals, and corporate elites don't like radicals. I think the newly-empowered religious right wants to destabilize the federal judiciary, both by scaring it with impeachment threats and by getting radicals onto the bench, and I don't think that's good for the moneyed elites (or, for that matter, for anyone else).

Posted by: David | Apr 27, 2005 10:23:17 PM

Businessmen don't like "tort reform" because of some love for the federal courts. They want cases removed to federal court so they can be dismissed (because of various Supreme Court precedents that make it harder to maintain cases in federal courts than in many state courts). An independent judiciary doesn't enter into it.

Posted by: phil | Apr 28, 2005 1:11:07 AM

What happened to the economic conservatives, those that want fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, smaller government, balanced budget etc. The ballooning deficit, devalued dollar and a policy of no taxes to pay for the war and hand the cost to the next generation are an economic fiasco.

Posted by: john nighswander | Apr 28, 2005 9:46:00 PM

Hear hear. Today's Republican party is a lot of things, but "conservative" is not one of them. I don't know how the "economic conservatives" you describe vote these days, but if they should be voting Democratic if they're serious about fiscal responsibility and the other values you mention.

Posted by: David | Apr 28, 2005 10:52:12 PM

But I reject the suggestion that the judges being filibustered (and, more importantly, the ones that the theocrats would really like to see appointed) are "conservative" in any meaningful sense of the word. They are radicals, and corporate elites don't like radicals.

I take it you really haven't looked into these judges. The majority really aren't radicals. Stop using left-leaning magazines, blogs, etc. as your only source of information. This is a political struggle, and is not about "extreme judges." Janice R. Brown, for instance, has been portrayed as a bigot for her dissent in Aguilar v. Avis Rent S Car. However, any lawyer can look at that case and realize there is nothing extreme about her decision.

Posted by: JMoore | Apr 28, 2005 11:17:53 PM

Oh for heaven's sake. Look, I'd call Justice Thomas a radical too, and I think that's a perfectly defensible position (and no, I didn't get that from blogs or lefty magazines - I got it from reading his opinions while I was clerking on the Supreme Court and afterward).

Plus - the "majority" aren't radicals?? What the Hector Heathcote is a "conservative" President doing appointing any judges who can fairly be described as radicals? One of the most galling things about this whole business is Republicans piously claiming they don't like "judicial activists" who "legislate from the bench," while simultaneously lauding Scalia and Thomas, the two most activist Justices the Court has seen in years. The fact is that the theocrat Republicans - perhaps like Democrats in the past - want to remake the legal landscape of this country, and they've decided that getting radical activist judges onto the federal courts is a key part of that strategy, perhaps because they don't have the votes to do it democratically. I've noted elsewhere that I don't think this is a great strategy for Dems - I certainly don't think it's a good one for Republicans either.

One more thing: you might be interested in this post from Andrew Sullivan - a self-described conservative lamenting the GOP's current theocratic tendencies. People in the party are scared, and justifiably so.

Posted by: David | Apr 29, 2005 9:53:28 AM

Judges are the key to cracking the Republican coalition, though I think you got the details wrong. There's not specifically anti-corporate-conservative about the kinds of judges the Christian right likes, and I don't think there's a specific problem there.

The reason judges are a key has little to do with the corporate side of the Republican coalition. It has to do with the fact that a majority of Americans of all types, rich and poor, independent and Republican and Democrat, southern and northern and western and midwestern, are all disinclined to have radicals on the bench.

To the extent that the Democrats succeed in communicating that Bush is trying to put radicals on the bench, public opposition to it will continue to grow. The only group that really wants these radicals is the Christian right. However, to the Christian right, judges are the issue. No compromise is possible. This is more important to them than any one "culture" issue, like gay marriage or abortion or euthanasia or "under God" in the pledge or prayer in schools... because this is all of those culture issues all wrapped into one.

To put it simply: Judicial appointments are the reason the Christian right is in politics. It's the reason they vote.

That huge surge in Christian right participation in the 2004 election? It's a direct result of the fact that finally, after decades, Republican after Republican repeatedly letting them down, finally, a Republican president was actually nominating their kind of judges. For the first time since the Christian right got organized in the 70s and 80s, here was a Republican who was actually delivering rather than just giving them lip service. So millions of them voted for the first time.

If the Bush administration backs off, these new voters will be very very angry. They will feel betrayed. They probably won't vote Republican in 2008. So Bush cannot back off without losing a critical piece of the base.

And yet, the more he pushes this, the more he'll lose standing with the rest of the country.

Posted by: Cos | Apr 30, 2005 1:37:25 AM

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