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The Specter of GOP Decline but Not Death

The Specter of GOP Decline but Not Death

By David Paul Kuhn - May 1, 2009

It was quite the metaphor for the Grand Old Party's death. One of the last northeastern Republicans in Congress switches parties. He gives Democrats' vote 60 and a potentially clear legislative run. And who caused this political deathblow? It was a man whose name is synonymous with ghosts.

So it was no surprise Arlen Specter's decision stirred a string of new Republican obituaries. The last Mid-Atlantic GOP senator has left the stage. Republicans have received two consecutive lashings in national elections. The Northeast was the base of the GOP majority a century ago. It's now Democrats' strongest region.

More from RCP: 10 Senators Who Switched Parties

Specter personified it all. There he was, leaning over the podium, reciting the names of other ghosts of GOP moderation: Gilchrest of Maryland, Schwarz of Michigan, Wilson of New Mexico, Chafee of Rhode Island.

"Remember Lincoln Chafee?" Specter asked reporters.

Not a snivel followed. What was it that T.S. Eliot said of a world ending "not with a bang but a whimper?"

There are, after all, few tears for Specter within conservative Republican ranks. “I’m sorry, I’m not weeping here,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told CBS.

Steele slammed Specter for placing his career before his party. But this was the same Steele who was willing to risk a Republican senate seat when he said, a few months back, that he was “open” to electoral “retribution” against GOP moderates like Specter.

“A sizable chunk of the party fully welcomes ideological cleansing,” said Tony Fabrizio in an interview, a leading GOP strategist. “They believe goodbye, good luck, and good riddance to Arlen Specter. He voted like a Democrat and what do we need him for? I only have one problem with that. As far as I can tell he voted for all our Supreme Court nominees, most of the stuff Bush wanted and most of the stuff Reagan wanted. Show me a Democrat who is going to do that?”

Similar to life, denial comes before recovery in politics. Republicans' mistakes feel terribly Democratic of late. Liberal dogmatism drowned pragmatism in 1972 and 1984. Many Republicans, with notable exceptions like Sens. John Cornyn and Lindsay Graham, are mimicking the liberal tendencies they once ridiculed.

"It feels to me like we are more like Democrats in late the '70s and early '80s, more defined by our special interests than not," Fabrizio continued. "It's almost like '72 when you get the nuts ruling the asylum, when the ultra liberals took control."

Republicans have seen tougher times. Today, by Gallup's latest measure, Democrats have a 7-point party identification advantage. The parties were at parity in 2005. That justifies GOP anxiety. But Democrats' affiliation advantage was 28 points in 1964 and 25 points in 1976.

Only 28 percent of Americans now identify as Republican. That's a decline of about a dozen points since autumn 2004. But in 1974, only 23 percent of Americans identified as Republican. In 1979, the number was 22. Ronald Reagan followed those low GOP days. By 1981, near the climax of GOP ascendency, there was the same portion of Republicans as today.

In the Senate, where all eyes now turn, times are awful for the GOP. Specter's switch will bring Democrats to territory hardly imaginable four years ago--a 60-vote super majority. Here too Republicans have seen bluer days. Democrats had 69 seats from 1935-1937 and 68 seats from 1965-1967.

None of this is reason for Republicans to underestimate their decline. It's no accident that between 1964 and 1995, broadly the GOP ascendant years, the four senators who switched parties all migrated from the Democratic to the Republican Party. By contrast, since 1999, three of the four senators who switched parties left the GOP (however temporally in Robert Smith's case).

Specter's Northeast does mirror the Southern Flip. When Christopher Shays' lost in 2008, the GOP lost its last House seat in New England. Democrats now hold every seat in six of the nine northeastern states. They control nine of the twelve Senate seats in New England.

Republicans are in worse shape in the West. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won 51 percent of the Northeast. In 2008, Obama won 59 percent. Between those same years, Democrats went from winning 40 to 57 percent of the West.

Some Republicans, like conservative stalwart Newt Gingrich, say they take solace in Democrats holding all the power. It's now Democrats' political football to score or possibly fumble. But what political party would not rather be the one with the ball?

Overreach is possible. The two Democrats to win a majority before Barack Obama, Lyndon Johnson and Carter, strained and soon tore their mandate. Two years after Johnson's landslide only a third of the public had a favorable view of the Great Society. Carter rebuffed his liberal wing by killing water projects and generally showing little regard for the liberal veterans.

"He never understood how the system worked," Tip O'Neill later said of Carter.

Democrats will soon be one Senate vote short of where they stood after the 1974 elections. It was on the eve of that election that Lanny Davis, later of Clintonista fame, published the first book titled the "Emerging Democratic Majority." That didn’t work out.

But then is not necessarily now. Obama, unlike Carter, has surrounded himself with insiders who know how the system works. It remains to be seen whether Obama will take government spending further than the majority will tolerate. But it's fair to say the stimulus was an inauspicious start. As a blueprint, it looks more social services bill than jobs bill.

Yet, in the larger sense, Democrats are also sobered by their sustained defeat and in one odd turn of events, appear the more pragmatic party.

Obama is governing domestically as a liberal. Overall, the Obama administration estimates federal outlays this year will surpass 27 percent of GDP, larger than at any point since World War II.

But on national security issues from Afghanistan to controversial surveillance procedures, Obama has broken with large swaths of his base. Wednesday night, at his 100th day press conference, Obama dexterously ducked some cultural stances sought by that base.

Obama referred to abortion opponents as "pro-life" and said that a law guarantying abortion rights was not his "highest legislative priority." Obama also avoided committing to significant action on immigration reform this year. Obama's team realizes that many recent Democratic gains in red states are from conservative Democrats who will not cast culturally liberal votes.

Meanwhile, Republicans are acting like a party that would rather lose its moderates than win elections. The final move that severed Specter from Republicans, and led to Steele’s call for “retribution,” was Specter's vote in favor of Obama's stimulus package.

By comparison, top union officials like SEIU's Andy Stern have welcomed Specter despite his opposition to labor's great legislative ambition, the "card check" bill that would make it easier to unionize a work place.

Even the grassroots now betray changing times. For decades, conservatives scoffed at liberals for impotent protests. Remember Code Pink protesters interrupting congressional hearings? Donald Rumsfeld barely contained his smirk. Now liberals are mocking conservative protesters at Tax Day rallies.

One of those protesters was a serious contender to lead the national Republican Party last year. Saul Anuzis told me after attending a Tea Party that he has come to view 2008 in tidal terms.

"The American people wanted to throw the bums out and we were the bums," Anuzis said. He spoke longfully of his party's heyday, a "silent majority" of "Norman Rockwell type Americans who believe in Chevys and Apple Pie."

But that was then. Today, one poll found that pumpkin pie is more popular than apple pie. As for the maker of Chevy, it's on the verge of bankruptcy.

More from RCP: 10 Senators Who Switched Parties

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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