America’s two great political parties are constantly transforming themselves, sometimes in small increments, sometimes in sudden lurches. They respond to cues sent to them by voters — which can range from attaboy! to fuhggedaboutit — and to the initiatives of party leaders, especially presidents.
But when the other party has held the White House for an extended period, the transformation process can be stormy and chaotic. Which is a pretty apt description of the Republican Party over the past few years. Its two living ex-presidents, the George Bushes, withdrew from active politics immediately after leaving the White House, and its two most recent nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, say they are not running for president again, although they do weigh in on issues. There is no obvious heir apparent and there are many politicians who may seek the 2016 presidential nomination. More than usual, the opposition party is up for grabs.
As the cartoon images of elephant and donkey suggest, our two parties are different kinds of animals. Republicans have generally been more cohesive, with a core made up of politicians and voters who see themselves, and are seen by others, as typical Americans — white Northern Protestants in the 19th century, married white Christians today. But those groups, by themselves, have never been a majority of the nation. The Democratic Party has been made up of disparate groups of people regarded, by themselves and others, as outsiders in some way — Southern whites and Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, blacks and gentry liberals today. Our electoral system motivates both to amass coalitions larger than 50 percent of voters. Democrats tend to do so by adding additional disparate groups. Republicans tend to do so by coming up with appeals that unite their base and erode Democrats’ support from others.
In the past 100 years there has been a certain rhythm, a familiar though not inevitable pattern, in coalition construction and deconstruction. A party’s nominee for president is elected. In his first years he advances a legislative agenda that all members of his party and, usually, some in the opposition party support. He is re-elected or, as in 1924 and 1964, the vice president who succeeds him is elected by a substantial margin. In the last century, the only years when previously elected presidents were defeated after one term were 1932, 1980 and 1992. Then, in the president’s second term, events turn sour, legislative initiatives are defeated, the opposition party coalesces and the president’s party splinters. Among members of his party, gratitude for past achievements dims, and frustration grows over roads not taken and goals not achieved. Disillusion accelerates as fears grow that the opposite party’s nominee will win the next election. The party in power splinters and either erupts openly or seethes silently with discontent. The party out of power grapples first with the task of selecting a new nominee and, perhaps more importantly, of settling on policy initiatives and priorities.
The pattern can be seen as long ago as the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, prolific legislatively in the first term and party-splitting in the second. In the 1920s, too, presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge were prolific legislatively but sowed seeds of discontent that would doom the party to minority status after the disaster of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt’s second term was full of policy defeats and party divisions, all of which were little noticed as he was elected to third and fourth terms as a seasoned leader in a time of world war. Party divisions were apparent as Harry Truman was challenged by both segregationist and anti-Communist Democrats in the 1948 general election, and grievances sowed in Dwight Eisenhower’s second term fueled the conservative movement that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Second-term discontent was apparent in 1968 and 1972, when anti-Vietnam War Democrats took over and transformed the party. From having been the party more supportive of military intervention in the half-century after 1917, the Democrats became, in the next half-century, the party more opposed to it. The same second-term discontent was evident among Republicans in 1976, when Ronald Reagan nearly wrested the nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford in protest against the foreign policy conducted by Henry Kissinger under Richard Nixon. And there they were again in 1980, when Edward Kennedy’s “dream will never die” challenge of incumbent Jimmy Carter showed similar discontent inside the Democratic Party.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency was unusually successful, and the GOP remained united when he left office in 1988. But discontent emerged quickly and boiled over when George H.W. Bush, over the opposition of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, broke his “read my lips — no new taxes” promise and agreed to a tax increase in 1990. In 1992, Pat Buchanan, who had been a speechwriter for Nixon and Reagan, ran a quixotic campaign against Bush, and Ross Perot ran an independent campaign that garnered 19 percent of the popular vote that fall.
Bill Clinton, like Reagan, had high approval ratings in his second term and, unlike Reagan, tried to clear the 2000 Democratic field for his chosen successor, Vice President Al Gore (his one competitor, Bill Bradley, left the race after losing the New Hampshire primary). By all the standard political science rules, Gore, as the candidate of the incumbent party in a time of peace and prosperity, was the favorite to win. But there was opposition on the left, from Ralph Nader, who attacked Clinton’s support of financial deregulation and military interventions. Pat Buchanan ran as an independent and was expected to get more votes than Nader. But Republican discontent, after two Democratic terms and the prospect of a third, had waned: Buchanan won less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote. Democratic discontent, even after a mostly successful two-term presidency, was enough to give Nader 3 percent of the vote.
In the 2000 cycle, as now, it was not clear what direction the Republican Party would take. It had accepted Gingrich’s budget and Medicare compromises with Clinton, which had led to a balanced budget, but Gingrich was swept aside as House speaker after Republicans lost a few seats in the 1998 off-year election. Republicans, since the 1960s the party more supportive of military intervention, were divided by Clinton’s military intervention in the Balkans; isolationist instincts, seemingly quelled since Eisenhower beat Taft in 1952, came back into view. McCain captured the imagination of many Republicans by running as a reformer, stressing campaign finance regulation, which most congressional Republicans opposed. George W. Bush, as governor of the second-largest state and son of a president whose defeat most Republicans had come to regret, emerged with the nomination.
Methodically, after consultations with experts on foreign and domestic policy, Bush put together a platform that he hoped would win support from some Democratic voters and officeholders as well as Republicans. Presumably he recognized that, as the candidate of the opposition party in times of apparent peace and apparent prosperity, he would start off as the underdog in the general election, and anticipated that if he won, Republicans would not have big congressional majorities. (They ended up with a 50-50 split in the Senate and only a 221-214 edge in the House.) Bush’s call for a “more humble” foreign policy was quickly rendered obsolete by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and his foreign policy won widespread bipartisan support until after Congress’ bipartisan approval of the Iraq war resolution in October 2002.
On domestic policy Bush converted a weak hand into a winning one. He secured enough Democratic votes to put in effect his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. He forged a bipartisan education accountability bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, with strong support from Sen. Kennedy and House Democrat George Miller. With the prospect that Democrats would soon pass a government-centered Medicare prescription drug bill, Bush pushed successfully for a more market-oriented version, to the dismay of many conservatives. It was passed only with a significant number of Democratic votes and some strong-arm tactics from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay to secure just enough Republican support.
All this was enough to secure Bush re-election in 2004, but with only 51 percent of the vote and small Republican gains in Congress. Those low percentages emboldened Democrats, even those who had been hinting otherwise, to oppose Bush’s chief domestic initiative, Social Security reform, which House Republicans were also hugely reluctant to support. House members returning to their districts have a hard time finding constituents eager to talk to them, and often had to settle for captive audiences of students and senior citizens. The first question from the latter was typically, “You’re not going to take away my Social Security, are you?” Polling showed support for Individual Retirement Accounts, but for House Republicans what counted more were their direct and uncomfortable encounters with worried elderly voters. GOP lawmakers demanded that the Senate act first; the new Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, made clear that it wouldn’t, and the issue died.
At just that juncture, violence escalated in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans. Bush’s poll numbers plunged. And the tendency toward discontent in the president’s party ballooned. It grew stronger as, contrary to the predictions of Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove, Republicans lost their majorities in both congressional chambers in 2006. It grew even more during the financial crisis of 2008, when many Republicans opposed vaguely worded legislation to inject hundreds of billions of dollars into the banking system.
It was this discontent, as well as fervent opposition to the Obama Democrats’ stimulus package and their healthcare legislation, that accounts for the Tea Party, which has considerably reshaped the Republican Party over the past six years. The Tea Party, like the peace movement four decades earlier, initially declared itself bipartisan or nonpartisan, but it soon poured almost all its energies into one party. Both movements were fueled by discontent with their parties’ most recent president, which had been modulated while that president remained in office and there remained a chance, however minimal, that his party might hold onto the White House in the next election.
All the anger rushed forward and was amplified after the other party came to power. The dovish Democrats showed much more rage when Richard Nixon sent troops into Cambodia than they had when Lyndon Johnson sent 550,000 troops to Vietnam, even though Nixon was already withdrawing U.S. forces and got them out by the beginning of his second term. Tea Party rage was stoked by Obama’s stimulus package and healthcare reforms, even though he was forced to rein in domestic spending after Republicans captured the House in 2010. But Tea Partiers loudly voiced discontent with the Bush record. Among their gripes were that tax cuts were not permanent and rates would be increased again (though House Republicans held them down more than almost anyone expected); No Child Left Behind inserted the federal government into local schools; and the Medicare prescription drug act was the first new federal entitlement program in nearly 40 years. These were principled criticisms, but there was no appreciation that Bush had been playing a weak hand, and the argument that he had advanced policy incrementally in a free-market direction held no water.
Like the peace movement, the Tea Party movement made some tactical mistakes. Its desire for candidates who would stand up on a chair and yell, “Hell, no!” led it to defeat incumbents or strong candidates and replace them with nominees incapable of winning in a general election. The peace movement did the same in 1970 and 1972. If the Tea Party had somehow forced the GOP to nominate a presidential candidate of that ilk — that seemed briefly possible while enthusiasm soared for Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum — that nominee might have suffered almost as serious a defeat as George McGovern did in 1972. But, in a field of candidates with thin resumes and limited political skills, they settled on a nominee who was probably strongest on both counts, as the apparent affection for Romney now seems to demonstrate.
When you have a rush of hundreds of thousands of previously uninvolved people into electoral politics, you get a certain number of wackos, weirdos and witches. But you also get many new people who turn out to be serious citizens with exceptional political skills. For every Sharron Angle, who lost what seemed to be a winnable Senate election in Nevada, you also get a Ron Johnson, who won what seemed to be an unwinnable seat in Wisconsin. Republicans missed their chance to win a Senate majority in 2010 and even lost seats in 2012 because of weak nominees.
But Republicans won solid majorities in the House in both years — bigger majorities than they won in any of the six elections between 1994 and 2004 — and despite moments of political disarray they have used their majorities successfully on the policy front and have left themselves open to new ideas and initiatives. The 2010 and 2012 elections brought to office many Republicans affiliated with or sympathetic to the Tea Party, determined to hold down government spending and willing to consider restructuring entitlements. In many cases they were as critical of the policies of George W. Bush as of those of Obama. Many Republicans, as in the Clinton years, supported a less assertive foreign policy and were willing or eager to accept cuts in defense spending. In the House, and in many state legislatures across the country, there was tension between legislative leaders and lawmakers oriented toward the Tea Party. Sometimes that tension was resolved by support for leaders’ positions, but sometimes it has produced embarrassment for the leaders, or sharp public disapproval, or both.
So the mainstream of the Republican Party became infused with the spirit and impulses of the Tea Party, just as the mainstream of the Democratic Party became infused with the spirit and impulses of the peace movement 40 years before. Because in both periods the presidents in office were opposed to the policies of the new movements, the policy achievements of these groups were patchy. The peace movement was unable to defund U.S. military forces when they were in Vietnam, but after the troops were withdrawn, the movement was able, in March 1975, to cut off aid to South Vietnam when it was invaded by the North. Only a month later, the last American helicopters left the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
Since the 2010 election, Republicans have managed to hold down federal spending and have prevented income tax rate increases on all but the highest earners. But they have made many of their gains through a clumsy sequester mechanism that has cut defense as well as domestic discretionary spending. In numerous states Republicans cut spending, cut taxes and declined to establish the state health insurance exchanges encouraged by Obamacare or sign on to its expansion of Medicaid. These represent policy successes at the margins, but fall far short of a clearly articulated and shrewdly designed political platform. House Republicans also showed some tactical adroitness when, after refusing to provide majority support for a leadership proposal to address the influx of Central American underage illegal immigrants at the border, the leadership negotiated an alternative that addressed the holdouts’ concerns and passed the House, while the Senate, run by Democrats, passed nothing.
Republican primary voters appear somewhat chastened by the high-profile general election defeats of prominent Senate primary winners in 2010 and 2012 and by the sharp negative public reaction to the party during the government shutdown in October 2013 — a reaction that was promptly reversed when the shutdown ended and the focus shifted to the disastrous rollout of Obamacare’s healthcare.gov. Voters have not rallied to candidates who seem most inclined to stand up on a chair and yell, “Hell, no!” But they have not voted reliably for seasoned incumbents either, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor so painfully found out. This summer three septuagenarian Republican senators fell just short of 50 percent of the vote in their primaries. None was actually defeated: Thad Cochran of Mississippi prevailed in the runoff three weeks later, and Pat Roberts of Kansas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee won pluralities in states without runoffs.
Neither party insurgents nor party veterans can expect to prevail in effectively uncontested primaries, but primary voters seem to be trying to avoid nominees incapable of winning or are capable of losing winnable general elections. In retrospect, the decisions of Republican primary voters in the 2012 presidential primaries seem to reflect similar impulses, with Romney prevailing over seemingly less electable candidates.
The current splits in the Republican Party are not analogous to those between Taft and Eisenhower Republicans in the 1950s or between Goldwater and Rockefeller Republicans in the 1960s. Those were fights between Republicans with directly opposing views on major issues. Today’s Republicans are largely united in opposition to the policies of the Obama administration, but they disagree on tactics — almost inevitably, since with control of only one chamber of Congress, Republicans are limited in what they can accomplish legislatively. Much more important are the potential divisions, or at least different approaches, over which policies Republicans should pursue if and when they win majorities in both chambers and the presidency in 2016. Some clarifying debate is beginning. So-called reform conservatives are advancing policies different from those of Reagan and the Bushes, and advocates of more market-oriented healthcare provisions are advancing alternatives to Obamacare of varying boldness.
Such debates will likely migrate into the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The party has a dozen or more plausible potential candidates and some of them are already offering policy proposals. The party has the advantage, lacked by George W. Bush, of facing an incumbent Democratic administration widely deemed unsuccessful; it has the handicap of facing, as Bush did not in 2000, a likely Democratic nominee who starts off running well ahead of the approval ratings of the Democratic incumbent. It has the advantage also of tending to favor policies that do not run against the grain of change in American society. Democrats have sought to build a bigger government in an Information Age that tends to favor decentralization of decision-making and disfavor centralized command-and-control apparatus.
Mainstream media will inevitably emphasize the discontentment in the Republican Party that originated in the second Bush term and flashed into prominence soon after Obama took office. It will tend to ignore the discontentment in the Democratic Party that are raging with increasing intensity. But a Republican Party that goes beyond being transfixed by arguments about the past has a chance to search, cooperatively and with respectful disagreement along the way, for policies that address genuine problems in line with conservative principles, policies that can prove politically attractive, legislatively feasible and effective in governance. That’s hard to do, but both parties have done it before, and the Republican Party, for all its internal angst, has an opportunity to do it again.