Wednesday, September 3, 2008

January 20, 2009

Neck deep in the campaign, few are thinking concretely about what happens after the inauguration. Peter Beinart has given it some thought, and has suggested that the Republicans would win by losing. Noting that Congress is certain to be firmly in the hands of Democratic majorities, a President McCain will be forced either to veto many bills that could offend "the base," or more likely (particularly given the theme of last night's convention, and Joe Lieberman's speech especially), make compromises with the Democrats that may be fatal to a process of Republican re-definition that will be needed over the next while. Playing defense, it will be uncertain what Republicanism will stand for - particularly with a self-defined maverick as a standard bearer.

But there are severe perils for a President Obama as well. Beinart writes, "Democrats have a history of overreaching when they win huge majorities. Franklin Roosevelt did so after his re-election landslide in 1936; so did Lyndon Johnson after 1964. Obama could as well. With big majorities in the House and Senate, he'd probably take another run at universal health care, which is what helped prompt the Gingrich revolution in 1994. He could hike taxes and impose tough new environmental regulations on business. He might preside over a messy withdrawal from Iraq and perhaps see Iran complete development of a nuclear weapon. Any one of these things could pump some life into the near catatonic GOP."

An Obama presidency will be celebrated by many as a kind of religious apotheosis. Expectations for transformation of America and the world - "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal" - are running feverishly high. With the likelihood of substantial majorities in a Democratic Congress and a slew of promises to fulfill, it is easy to imagine Obama overreaching. Nothing would galvanize a demoralized Republican party than a Democratic Washington against which to run. And lest we think that the current economic recession will cease on January 20, the next President will have a set of challenges unseen perhaps since the days of FDR. Obama could succeed by calling for sacrifice and a change of behavior by America's citizens, but while his words about responsibility have soared, his programmatic proposals have suggested an exceedingly activist government that will likely increase the deficit and decrease incentives for true self-governance. We will go from expecting a free ride from Wall Street to a free ride from Washington.

The problem that Republicans face in this likely scenario is that they will remain the party that is best defined by what they are against. Having been in the position to govern with a Republican-controlled Presidency and Congress, they achieved their position by lambasting the tax-and-spend Democrats even as they showed that they are tax-cut-and-spend Republicans who above all enjoyed power for the sake of power. If Republicans are reasonably against the anti-realism of a Messianic Obama presidency, then Republicans must find a way to be for something. Douthat and Salam's Grand New Party may be a blueprint or at least a prolegomenon to a redefinition of what Republicans are for, but they are very young men who don't yet have the attention of the leaders of their party. Rod Dreher's "Crunchy Conservatism" draws ever-more adherents, and has the potential of bringing together city-based environmental types and small town populists, but he remains something of an apostate within the conservative inner citadel (not enough free market dogma to assuage the fund-raisers. I say cut them loose and let them form a libertarian party with the Democratic elites. We'll be poor, but happy). What is striking about the Republican convention is the advanced age of most of its delegates, and the suspicion by this viewer that it will be some time before they can begin to articulate a positive vision that moves beyond knee-jerk and frankly tired opposition that translates poorly into a governing philosophy.

A President Obama would doubtlessly give Republicans the opportunity to define themselves against an over-reaching opponent. He remains sufficiently undefined for voters to remain unsure whether he will be able to resist his own party when it seeks to increase government spending by scales of magnitude, as it surely will. His words give some hope, but the evidence of his actions is thin and does not inspire confidence in standing up to liberal orthodoxy. His debt to an electoral base composed of readers of "Daily Kos" and "Huffington Post" is problematic. Dogged adherence to their demands will have one certain outcome: a rejuvanation of a demoralized and disorganized Republican Party. Losing the election may be the best thing that could happen to the Republicans, and the worst for the Democrats. Politics is a funny business.

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