What to do with the Republican rump?
Carlton M. Caves
2008 November 1

Karen and I attended an Obama rally in Albuquerque a week ago. Held in the evening on the athletic fields at the University of New Mexico, the rally attracted about 40,000 people. Obama's speech was a bit of a letdown. He seemed tired---who wouldn't be?---but the crowd wasn't tired, and its mood was decidedly upbeat. That same morning, McCain had spoken to a crowd of about 1,000 at the State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque. Crowds at political rallies are not reliable predictors of the outcome of an election, but a comparison of these two rallies, in what is generally thought to be a swing city in a swing state, is pretty telling.

It now looks as though Obama and the Democrats are headed for a decisive victory next Tuesday. I'm predicting a 53%-45% Obama win in the popular vote (with the other 2% going to the minor candidates) and an electoral victory of roughly two-to-one. In addition, the Democrats will emerge with majorities of roughly 65 in the House and nearly 20 in the Senate. We can be thankful for all this. The country has many problems, and the process of addressing at least some of them can begin with the Republicans finally out of power. Don't think, however, that things will be perfect under the Democrats, for they will start making mistakes the minute they're in full power. The hope is that Obama and his Democratic colleagues in the Congress can start pointing the country in the right direction without making too many mistakes in the process.

There will, as always, be a need for a responsible opposition party, and therein lies a problem that won't be discussed much till after the magnitude of the Republican defeat is clear. What will be left of the Republican party will not be the responsible part---moderate Republicans are going to be wiped out by the defeat---but rather the proto-fascist rump.

These are, quite frankly, dangerous views. They're not going to go away. Demonization of the other has always been a theme in right-wing politics, in this country and elsewhere, sometimes with tragic consequences. Losing this election is not going to improve attitudes on the right, at least initially and probably not for quite a while. The Republican rump is going to be disaffected, frustrated, and angry, and they will be looking for someone and something to blame. They will point to voter fraud and the perfidy of the liberal media, but they will also quickly toss John McCain aside, arguing that he was insufficiently pure on the socially conservative principles they hold dear. They will believe that they would have won had the ticket been reversed, with their heroine, Sarah Palin, at the top. Palin will emerge as the pitbull-sweetheart of the Republican rump. The rump will receive daily confirmation of its world view from the virulent talk on right-wing radio and Fox News, and they will insist that Palin conservatives run the party.

Why should we care? The point of this election, following on the mid-term election of 2006, is to isolate the GOP in its base. That goal will, I believe, be achieved. The Republican base, about 30% of the overall population, is heavily concentrated, to the point of being a majority, in the South, the Plains, and parts of the mountain West, and that's where the GOP will be confined.

On our side we have a compelling candidate for President. Freed of the imperative to do nothing but look calm and responsible in the two months preceding the election, he will, we can hope, resume his role of inspiration and put together a progressive-moderate coalition to address the challenges of the 21st Century. If he can do that and thereby get the country headed in the right direction, then we can keep the Republicans confined till they change. If things go bad---but let's not go there.

Change in the Republican party is not going to come easy. What we're seeing in this election cycle is the sundering of the Republican coalition of national-security, economic, and social conservatives. The social conservatives, who have the votes, will come out on the top of a shrunken party. Embittered, they will cling---yes, embittered and clinging---to the belief that those who disagree with them aren't just disagreeing, but rather are traitors and enemies or, at least, dupes of a liberal media. Within their regional lairs, they are the majority, and they will not immediately find any reason to reform. But time and national defeat will, we can hope, eventually prompt the GOP to reform itself, so that it can again take up the role of a responsible party in American politics.

John McCain emerges as the tragic figure of this election. He is at least partly responsible for the present sad situation in the Republican party. He had an opportunity to move the GOP in a new direction, and he threw that opportunity away. After a conciliatory acceptance speech at the Republican convention, he compared the tepid response to his speech with the wild acclaim given Palin's red meat the night before. Mistakenly thinking that the convention audience represented America, he took the advice of the Republican political operatives that he had put in charge of his campaign and decided to wage an angry campaign devoid of ideas or coherence. The strategy was the familiar Republican one---try one attack after another until one sticks---but this time that strategy appears not to have worked.

The only Republican who had any chance to win this year, McCain relentlessly trashed whatever chance he had, destroying his carefully cultivated reputation for independence and straight talk in the process. With Palin's considerable help, he managed to turn maverick into a term of derision.

After the defeat, the Palin rump will kick McCain aside, but he won't find much of a welcome anywhere. He won't be able to re-occupy his old position of independence in American politics. When those of us who used to respect him look at him now, we see an unhappy, erratic, old man who when it really mattered, pandered to the worst instincts of the extreme right after spending a career refusing to do so. Regrettably, John McCain will be remembered for the two-plus months of negative, divisive campaigning after his choice of Palin. He will leave the Republican party cornered in its lairs and run by people who think the best response is to retreat even deeper into know-nothingism, the very people who sent him to defeat in the 2000 Republican primaries. That's not going to be a pretty sight for McCain to contemplate during his golden years.

In these circumstances, the best policy for Obama and the Democrats is to run the country as best they can and to make sure---hard though this is to say, it needs to be done---that moderate Republicans, in or out of office, feel included in the new administration, since they won't be much welcomed in their own party. Some Republicans, especially in the areas of foreign policy and national security, might even be given positions of responsibility in an Obama administration---Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar, and Robert Gates come to mind. A good sign of how long it will take the Republicans to reform will be provided by how long Sarah Palin remains a force in the party. My guess is that will take quite a while.

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