A National Party or a Regional One?

That’s the question Ross Douthat’s column doesn’t ask explicitly about the GOP’s future. But it’s a key question. Can the GOP compete at all in the Northeast? Is there any role for the region in the national party’s future?

The “New Democrats” and “neoliberals” that Ross refers to were concerned with many things, from questions of policy to questions of marketing, but one of the key things they were concerned with was being competitive nationally, and particularly in the South, the region that was most dramatically trending in a Republican direction. Leading lights included Tennessee Senator Al Gore and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. The “Super-Tuesday” primary was designed for the 1988 election to insure that the nominee was acceptable to the Southern electorate (and wound up delivering Michael Dukakis: go figure). Even as they made gains in traditionally Republican-leaning regions (California favored Bush Sr. by a much narrower margin than the nation as a whole in 1988, a far cry from 1976 when the state went for Gerald Ford while the election went to Jimmy Carter), the Democrats (other than John Kerry) understood that ceding an entire section of the country was dangerous folly.

Do the Republicans see things that way today? I don’t really think so. The national party would, of course, like to keep as many votes as it can. But other than trying to hang on to the Snowes and Specters, it’s not at all clear to me that the GOP has any strategy for competing in the Northeast. The reformers who have played well to Ross – Pawlenty, most prominently, but also Jindal, and to some extent Huckabee – are all basically solid social conservatives who don’t take an especially hard ideological line on the role of government and who position themselves as pragmatic problem-solvers interested in the problems of a family of four earning $50-75,000 per year, and not just the problems of big corporations and the wealthy. Ross is right that these guys don’t add up to a faction, but I’m making a different point: guys in this mold are not going to be competitive in Maryland, in New Jersey, in Connecticut. Nor are they going to be competitive in California. And once you’ve conceded the Northeast and the West Coast, the road to either 270 electoral votes or 51 Senate seats looks mighty steep.

I’m not making the argument that the GOP needs to throw the social conservatives overboard in order to be nationally competitive. I am saying, though, that a party that isn’t nationally competitive isn’t going to win national power except on a fluke. Not that long ago, people like Rudy Giuliani, Pete Wilson and Bill Weld were considered part of the big tent. I have disagreements with all three of them, politically, as does Ross – and they have disagreements with each other. But none of them was cut from the cloth of Specter or Jeffords. Look at what the ambition to be viable to the national GOP did to Mitt Romney, who once looked like a pretty decent governor.

Gore and Clinton were not the equivalents of Breaux or Tauzin; they were the vanguard of their party, not its rear guard with an eye on the exit. But Senator Al Gore was a lot friendlier to tobacco interests than your average Democrat. Governor Clinton was a lot more pro-death-penalty than your average Democrat. What does a GOP candidate aiming to be competitive in New York but have the support of and the potential to rise within the national Republican Party look like? In the last national election, the answer was: somebody who is willing to invoke 9-11 at every turn, “double Guantanamo” and prepare the country for a 100-year occupation of Iraq. I don’t think Ross thinks that’s the way forward. So: what is?