Gerson: How My Party Lost Its Way

The evening of the 2004 presidential vote had been late and frustrating. The networks, burned by their monumental confusion on election night 2000, had refused to declare a winner in Ohio, even though the result was clear. In the Oval Office the next morning, President Bush sat with Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Dan Bartlett and me, talking distractedly on random topics. Then his assistant Ashley called in, "Senator Kerry on the line." There was a cordial, five-minute conversation. When the president got off the phone, his eyes filled with tears—tears of relief that another election crisis had been avoided—and he hugged each of us in turn.

The Republican Party, at that moment, was on a roll. Between 2000 and 2004, the president increased his total vote by 23 percent. Republicans in the House held their highest majority since 1946. It was the first time Republicans had controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress in back-to-back elections since the 1920s. One respected conservative commentator said that Republican hegemony in America was "expected to last for years, maybe decades."

Well, "decades" was a bit optimistic. In early 2008, by nearly every measure, the Republican Party is in trouble. Republicans in the House and Senate have been exiled from leadership and are retiring in large numbers. Fund-raising—the most tangible measure of enthusiasm—is weak. In the first three quarters of 2007, Democratic presidential candidates out-raised their Republican counterparts by $77 million. One adviser to a major Republican campaign recently complained to me that a significant number of wealthy donors on their fund-raising list were giving to … Barack Obama. Voter turnout on the Republican side in the early primaries has been weak compared with Democrats. And the party, well into the primary process, lacks a unifying candidate.

What caused the Republican unraveling? It began with the Bush administration itself. Through the intense experiences of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Republican Party became closely identified with President Bush—and President Bush became closely identified with Iraqi violence and chaos. The slow response to rising sectarian conflict in 2005 and 2006 left an impression of stubbornness in a losing cause. Every element of the Republican coalition the president had offended during his political rise—budget hawks, anti-immigration activists, libertarian critics of compassionate conservatism—felt liberated and emboldened by Bush's weakness, and reasserted their claim on the party's future. The president's embrace of the surge in Iraq has dramatically improved the situation—but the damage was done. The cracks in the Bush coalition began spreading.

Then came the congressional losses of 2006, which were related to a sour public mood on Iraq—but only in part. Republican congressional leaders had assumed the same earmark-seeking and ethical corner-cutting image of their Democratic predecessors. The "bridge to nowhere" became a Republican symbol of waste and hypocrisy. Some conservatives tried to shift the blame to the president's "reckless spending" for the midterm defeats of 2006—conveniently forgetting that more than 15 Republican members of Congress had been implicated in sexual and financial scandals. Americans generally change control of Congress when the party in power appears corrupt and arrogant—and by that standard it is difficult to argue with the judgment of the American people in 2006.

Now the frustrations of the last two or three years—the resentments of every group that has felt ignored, marginalized, helpless, slighted or unfairly blamed—are being taken out on the Republican presidential candidates. As each one of them steps forward from the crowd, he is greeted by ideological sniping. Mike Huckabee is targeted by free marketers and movement conservatives for his economic "liberalism." John McCain is attacked for his heresies on immigration and campaign finance reform. Rush Limbaugh argues that the nomination of either candidate would "destroy the Republican Party." Mitt Romney attempts to avoid this kind of criticism by blending in perfectly with his surroundings—a social conservative in Iowa, an agent of change in New Hampshire, a protector of the auto industry in Michigan—and gets criticized (including by me) for his inconsistencies.

In this cycle, many Republicans seem led to support their candidate by process of elimination—"I guess I could live with X." At the same time, many Republicans seem led to oppose candidates passionately—"The nomination of X would end Western civilization." This is a factionalism of Bolshevik fervor, and it is a bad sign. Parties that prefer purity to victory—à la Goldwater and McGovern—usually lose. At this moment, Republicans look like the party that wants to lose the most.

The problems run deeper than the temper of party activists. The Republican coalition of the 1980s was built around a series of issues—reducing high marginal tax rates, reforming welfare, fighting crime. The success of this agenda has made it less compelling. Tax rates have been dramatically reduced, leading to astounding economic growth. Rates of violent and property crime have plummeted in the last decade. Welfare caseloads have fallen by 60 percent. Public policy success always involves a political curse—issues that were once powerful became less urgent and relevant.

The Republican search for new issues to replace the old has been less than successful. For a while, some thought tough restrictions on immigration were the key. But like an unstable compound, this issue has a tendency to explode and burn those who handle it roughly. Especially on the presidential level, there are few winning strategies that involve the alienation of Hispanic voters.

Though all Republicans share a belief in federalism and limited government, a simplistic, exclusive emphasis on those themes serves only to confirm the worst Republican stereotypes. What does it profit Fred Thompson to criticize President Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, arguing that we should focus on "problems here"? What is the benefit when candidates turn against the No Child Left Behind Act, which has succeeded in improving minority test scores? Why attack a Medicare prescription drug care plan that has been implemented smoothly and is wildly popular among the elderly? In all these cases, why not defend achievements instead of abandoning compelling issues?

The old priorities of the Republican coalition are being replaced—not yet totally, but swiftly—by new issues such as energy, the environment, health care and the effects of global competition on American workers. Some of the candidates have fragments of a new message—Huckabee's economic populism, McCain's support for a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, Romney's Massachusetts health-care approach. But, for the most part, this is unfamiliar territory for Republicans. National security issues, of course, could return in a moment, with a vengeance. But in the long term, Republicans will need to find compelling conservative and free-market policies that appeal to the concerns of young people, Hispanics and an anxious middle class. This will involve not only reassembling a coalition, but constructing a new one.

It has been a quick, downward path from Kerry's concession call to the present discontents of the Republican Party. But two caveats need to be kept in mind. First, political recoveries can be as sudden as political declines. And second, there is, perhaps, one large American political figure who could cause depressed, fractious Republicans to bind their wounds, downplay their divisions, renew their purpose, and join hands in blissful unity at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Republican convention.

And that figure is Hillary Clinton.