Just like 1997

We can begin writing the ecstatic posts about what it will be like to have an Obama presidency, but it will be equally fascinating — and certainly very satisfying — to see the Republican party torn apart by its losses in November.

I think the GOP will go through something like the journey through the wilderness experienced by Britain’s Conservative party following Tony Blair’s election in 1997. Blair won after 18 years of Conservative rule (Mrs Thatcher followed by John Major). Labour supporters had been confident that Neil Kinnock would win in 1992, but they were cruelly disappointed (echoes of Kerry’s loss in 2004). Blair won an overwhelming majority in 1997, with the most Labour seats in party history. The Conservatives ended up with the fewest seats since 1906.

Now you’d think that after such a crushing defeat the Conservatives would undergo a root and branch reform of the party. But joy it was to be a Labour supporter in those years. The Conservatives decided that the party’s problem was that it wasn’t Thatcherite enough. They picked the 36-year old William Hague as Major’s successor, but however new an image Hague tried to convey, no one bothered to rethink the policies the electorate had rejected. When Labour had a second landslide win in 2001, the Conservatives continued to delude themselves, picking the nonentity Iain Duncan Smith as party leader. He didn’t last long. Duncan Smith was replaced by the genuinely scary Michael Howard. Labour won a third election in 2005, although with a reduced majority.

Only after a third consecutive election defeat did the Conservatives figure out that the problem wasn’t that they were insufficiently conservative, or that the party’s message wasn’t getting through. The party needed to rethink its core philosophy as thoroughly as Blair and Gordon Brown had rethought Labour in the first half of the ’90s. It’s conceivable that under David Cameron the Conservatives will return to power in 2010 (although I hope the plaudits for Gordon Brown’s leadership in the current financial crisis brings him and Labour back up in the polls).

So what might this mean for the Republican party after November 4? If the leaders of the party had any sense, they would find a way back to the center of American politics. I’m happily confident, however, that the “lesson” that will be taken from the failure in 2008 will be that John McCain was never a true believer on the right, that he failed to be aggressive enough against Obama, that more red meat was needed for success. As high as her unfavorables may be in the electorate, as much as her feebleness as a national candidate has been exposed, Sarah Palin has captured the hearts of the base. She’ll figure she’s in good shape for 2012. It’s conceivable that Mitt Romney will try a comeback for the next election. Certainly, economic issues will remain highly salient. But just like this time, Romney will run to the right to please the party.

An Obama administration will unquestionably face a very difficult economic environment. Perhaps the cycle will turn sufficiently in four years that he will be well poised for re-election. I can’t pretend to any crystal ball. But the demographics of the nation are moving strongly in favor of Obama and the Democrats. The last four years have exposed to most people the bankruptcy of the Republican right wing philosophy. We can count on the Republicans themselves not to understand the new reality until they lose at least two elections.

One thought on “Just like 1997

  1. Pingback: Davos Newbies » Blog Archive » The GOP’s accelerating decline

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *