ELECTION junkies in acute withdrawal need suffer no longer. Though the exciting Obama-McCain race is over, the cockfight among the losers has only just begun. The conservative crackup may be ugly, but as entertainment, it’s two thumbs up!
Over at Fox News, Greta Van Susteren has been trashing the credibility of her own network’s chief political correspondent, Carl Cameron, for his report on Sarah Palin’s inability to identify Africa as a continent, while Bill O’Reilly valiantly defends Cameron’s honor. At Slate, a post-mortem of conservative intellectuals descended into name-calling, with the writer Ross Douthat of The Atlantic labeling the legal scholar Douglas Kmiec a “useful idiot.”
In an exuberant class by himself is Michael Barone, a ubiquitous conservative commentator who last week said that journalists who trash Palin (more than a few of them conservatives) do so because “she did not abort her Down syndrome baby.” He was being “humorous,” he subsequently explained to Politico, though the joke may be on him. Barone writes for U.S. News & World Report, where his 2008 analyses included keepers like “Just Call Her Sarah ‘Delano’ Palin.” Just call it coincidence, but on Election Day, word spread that the once-weekly U.S. News was downsizing to a monthly — a step closer to the fate of Literary Digest, the weekly magazine that vanished two years after its straw poll predicted an Alf Landon landslide over Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.
Will the 2008 G.O.P. go the way of the 1936 G.O.P., which didn’t reclaim the White House until 1952? Even factoring in the Democrats’ time-honored propensity for self-immolation, it’s not beyond reason. The Republicans are in serious denial. A few heretics excepted, they hope to blame all their woes on their unpopular president, the inept McCain campaign and their party’s latent greed for budget-busting earmarks.
The trouble is far more fundamental than that. The G.O.P. ran out of steam and ideas well before George W. Bush took office and Tom DeLay ran amok, and it is now more representative of 20th-century South Africa during apartheid than 21st-century America. The proof is in the vanilla pudding. When David Letterman said that the 10 G.O.P. presidential candidates at an early debate looked like “guys waiting to tee off at a restricted country club,” he was the first to correctly call the election.
On Nov. 4, that’s roughly the sole constituency that remained loyal to the party — minus its wealthiest slice, a previously solid G.O.P. stronghold that turned blue this year (in a whopping swing of 34 percentage points). The Republicans lost every region of the country by double digits except the South, which they won by less than double digits (9 points). They took the South only because McCain, who ran roughly even with Obama among whites in every other region, won Southern whites by 38 percentage points.
Those occasional counties that tilted more Republican in 2008 tended to be not only the least diverse, but also the most rural, least educated and slowest-growing in population. McCain-Palin did score a landslide among white evangelical Christians, though even in that demographic Obama shaved the G.O.P. margin by seven percentage points from 2004.
The Republicans did this to themselves, yet a convenient amnesia can be found in conservatives’ post-Election Day soul searching. There’s endless hand-wringing about Bush and McCain blunders and Abramoff-Stevens corruption, but there’s barely any mention of the nasty cultural brawls that defined the G.O.P. campaign narrative this year as the party clung bitterly once more to its 40-year-old “Southern strategy.”
There were as many Republican prejudices as candidates. In primary season, the whispered antipathy among some conservative evangelicals toward Mormons grew so loud that Mitt Romney felt compelled to give a speech defending his faith (but was so fearful of inciting further wrath that he said the word Mormon only once). The conservative gatekeeper Michael Medved spotlighted another whisper campaign in May, writing that the popular moderate Florida G.O.P. governor Charlie Crist had been “single since his divorce in 1980 (after a marriage that lasted only a year)” and was the subject of “nasty rumors of possible gay activity.” Crist announced his engagement to a woman weeks later, but by then he was no longer a serious contender for the ticket.
John McCain also might have held Florida had he prevailed with his first choice of a running mate, the pro-abortion-rights Joe Lieberman, but G.O.P. ayatollahs scuttled both him and the abortion moderate Tom Ridge, who might have helped win Pennsylvania. Not that McCain was innocent in these exclusionary escapades. He strenuously sought the endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee, even though Hagee had blamed gays for Hurricane Katrina, referred to the Roman Catholic Church as “the great whore,” and theorized that Hitler came about because God’s “top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”
The icing on this rancid cake was the race-baiting of Obama and the immigrant bashing by G.O.P. hopefuls who tried to outdo the nativist fringe candidate Tom Tancredo. Yet Republican denial is unabated. In an interview with Palin the weekend before the election, a conservative Wall Street Journal editorialist asked whether “the G.O.P. doesn’t in fact have a perception problem, that it is no longer viewed as a big tent.” A perception problem? Hello — how about a reality problem?
Yet the G.O.P. really does believe that it’s all about perception. That’s why its 2000 convention offered a stage full of break dancers and gospel singers, wildly outnumbering the black delegates in the audience. Bush and Karl Rove regarded diversity as a public-relations issue to be finessed with marketing. Round up some black extras! Sell “compassionate conservatism” by posing Bush incessantly with black schoolchildren! Problem solved!
The 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign Web site even boasted a “Compassion” archive of photos of Bush with black folk, including Colin Powell. McCain used the same playbook this year, when he headed south to emote over Katrina victims and stock his own Web site with pictures depicting his adventures in black America. He had been a no-show in New Orleans during the six months after the hurricane hit, when his presence might have made a difference.
In defeat, the party’s thinking remains unchanged. Its leaders once again believe they can bamboozle the public into thinking they’re the “party of Lincoln” by pushing forward a few minority front men or women. The reason why they are promoting Palin and the recently elected Indian-American governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, as the party’s “future” is not just that they are hard-line social conservatives; they are also the only prominent Republican officeholders under 50 who are not white men. The G.O.P. will have to dip down to a former one-term lieutenant governor of Maryland, Michael Steele, to put a black public face on its national committee.
Such window dressing aside, there remains only one Republican idea for reaching out to minority voters: Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, recommends pandering to socially conservative blacks and Hispanics with yet more hyperventilation about same-sex marriage. Weird though it may be, gays were the sole minority group that actually voted slightly more Republican this year (though still going Democratic by 70 to 27 percent). Pitting blacks and Latinos against them could open up a whole new bloody front in the G.O.P. civil war.
The only other widespread post-election conservative ideas are Bush 2000 retreads (market-based health care and education reform). Jindal offers generic gab about how the party must offer Americans “real solutions” and “substance,” but he has yet to offer a real solution to his own state’s gaping $1 billion budget shortfall. Indeed, the only two “new” ideas that the G.O.P. is pushing in defeat are those they condemn when practiced by Democrats: celebrity and identity politics. Palin’s manic post-election publicity tour, which may yet propel her and “the first dude” to “Dancing With the Stars,” is almost a parody of the McCain ad likening Obama to Paris and Britney. Anyone who says so is promptly called out for sexism by the P.C. police of the newly “feminist” G.O.P.
At the risk of being so reviled, let me point out that in the marathon of Palin interviews last week, the single most revealing exchange had nothing to do with her wardrobe or the “jerks” (as she called them) around McCain. It came instead when Wolf Blitzer of CNN asked for some substance by inviting her to suggest “one or two ideas” that Republicans might have to offer. “Well, a lot of Republican governors have really good ideas for our nation,” she responded, without specifying anything except that “it’s all about free enterprise and respecting equality.” Well, yes, but surely there’s some actual new initiative worth mentioning, Blitzer followed up. “Gah!” replied the G.O.P.’s future. “Nothing specific right now!”
The good news for Democrats is a post-election Gallup poll finding that while only 45 percent of Americans want to see Palin have a national political future (and 52 percent of Americans do not), 76 percent of Republicans say bring her on. The bad news for Democrats is that these are the exact circumstances that can make Obama cocky and Democrats sloppy. The worse news for the country is that at a time of genuine national peril we actually do need an opposition party that is not brain-dead.