Will: The GOP—Grand Old Pulpit

Iowa Democrats launched their party's nomination process with the most ambiguous directive since Casey Stengel ordered his ballplayers to "line up alphabetically by height." Iowa Republicans made a choice that is certain to worsen the perception that the GOP is a regional church miscast as a national political organization.

Iowa Democrats gave considerable support to angry John Edwards who, although he is the fiery tribune of the proletariat, came in third among union voters. But Iowans gave even more support to Barack Obama, whose political persona is anodyne.

His success splendidly refutes the Democratic Party's longstanding embrace of the theory of identity politics and its corollary, the theory of categorical representation. Those theories are that individuals are defined, politically, by their race, gender or ethnicity; hence people can be properly represented only by people from the same category. Those theories look even more preposterous and dated after Obama's success in a state with a negligible minority population. Among the losers in Iowa were Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and all the others who still subscribe to a racial narrative of strife and oppression that has remained remarkably unchanged through 50 years of stunning progress, of which Obama's candidacy is powerful evidence.

Entrance polls indicated that 60 percent of Republicans participating in Iowa's caucuses were evangelical Christians, and Mike Huckabee got 46 percent of their votes. But he won just one in seven of the nonevangelical participants. Those numbers intimate a Republican vulnerability that Huckabee exacerbates.

In 2006, evangelicals gave Republicans more votes than Democrats received from African-Americans and union members combined. In a Huckabeean party, a growing dependence on the devout would increasingly define the GOP as a cultural enclave in which many Americans, including many devout Americans, would not be comfortable. Such a party would be largely confined to a regional enclave.

Since at least 1980, Democrats have had a severe problem with the South. Today much of that region remains safely Republican. But Republicans have a more serious problem with the North than Democrats now have with the South.

In 2000, for the first time ever, a Republican won the White House while losing the North. Al Gore came within 538 popular votes in Florida of becoming president without winning a single Southern electoral vote. When Bush carried Ohio in 2004—without it, he would not have been re-elected—it was the only large state he won outside the South. When John Kerry carried New Hampshire in 2004 it became one of just three states to change partisan alignment from 2000—the others were New Mexico and Iowa, both of which moved from the Democratic to the Republican column. Kerry's New Hampshire victory gave him a sweep of New England's 34 electoral votes. The 2006 elections gave Democrats 21 of that region's 22 congressional seats. (The only Republican, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, won a 10th term with just 51 percent of the vote.)

African-Americans are the Democratic Party's most loyal voters. Half of all African-Americans live in the South. If the GOP comes to be defined by Southern religiosity, significant numbers of white Southern Republicans might be made uneasy and some Southern electoral votes would be put in play.

When asked if a Democrat could carry Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat elected in 2005, answered, "The right Democrat." Kaine endorsed Obama 10 months ago. As this is being written, before New Hampshire makes its contribution to the current confusion, the Democratic Party, which is normally the Republican Party's not-very-secret weapon, seems inclined to avoid nominating the weakest of its top three candidates—the one whose popular-vote ceiling is probably around 51 percent. She began her campaign with the weakest argument for a presidential candidacy—inevitability. It provokes voters by reducing them to mere ratifiers of some law of political physics. She limped into New Hampshire on the crutch of the second-weakest argument—electability. That argument depresses voters by telling them they should confine themselves to considering only narrow calculations of electoral prudence.

These missteps, combined with her husband's ham-handed interventions on her behalf (her rivals should stop picking on her; he, unlike her, opposed the war "from the beginning"), refute the durable myth of the Clintons' political virtuosity. In neither 1992 nor 1996 did he win 50 percent of the popular vote—in 1992 he won with 43 percent of the vote, 2.4 points less than Dukakis had four years earlier. When the Clintons— remember their boast that we got two for the price of one—left the White House there were fewer Democratic senators, representatives, governors and state legislators than when they entered it.

For the first time since 1825, meaning the first time since the party system emerged, America is nearing the end of two consecutive eight-year presidencies. In six of the last seven elections, the name Reagan or Bush has been atop the Republican ticket. The future, it has been said, is a mirror without any glass in it. The outlines of the nation's political future probably cannot be discerned until 24 states are heard from on Feb. 5, but the future is going to be very unlike the past.