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The American right: Under the weather
The American right
Under the weather
Aug 9th 2007 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition
The conservative movement that for a generation has been the source of the Republican Party's strength is in the dumps
Illustration by Kevin Kallaugher
Thirty years ago Eric Hobsbawm, the dean of Marxist historians, chose as his subject, for the Marx memorial lecture, “The forward march of labour halted?” Things turned out even worse, for his side, than he had expected, thanks in part to the rise of a very American brand of conservatism. But are we now witnessing Mr Hobsbawm's revenge: the forward march of American conservatism halted?
The right has dominated American politics since at least 1980. The Republicans' electoral successes have been striking: five out of seven presidential elections since 1980 and a dramatic seizure of the House in 1994 after 40 years of Democratic rule. Even more striking has been the right's success in making the political weather.
The Republican Party is only the most visible part of the American right. The right's hidden strength lies in its conservative base. America is almost unique in possessing a vibrant conservative movement. Every state boasts organisations fighting in favour of guns and against taxes and abortion. The Christian right can call upon megachurches and Evangelical colleges. Conservatives have also created a formidable counter-establishment of think-tanks and pressure groups.
And many Americans who are not members of the movement happily embrace the label “conservative”. They think of themselves as God-fearing patriots who dislike big government and are tough on crime and national security. In 2004 roughly a third of the voters identified themselves as conservatives; just over 20% identified themselves as “liberal” (as American left-wingers are somewhat strangely called). Conservatives have driven the policy debate on everything from crime to welfare to foreign policy.
Yet today this mighty movement is in deep trouble. Veteran activists are sunk in gloom (“I've never seen conservatives so downright fed up,” says Richard Viguerie, a conservative stalwart). And the other side is cock-a-hoop. Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, describes the shift from conservatism as “breathtaking”.
The Democrats are well positioned to retake the White House in 2008. True, the Republican front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, a “big tent” Republican who combines liberal views on abortion and gay marriage with stellar credentials as “America's mayor”, is a strong candidate. The Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, suffers from high negatives and a scandal-prone husband. But the Clinton operation looks far more professional than Mr Giuliani's—and he has plenty of scandals of his own.
Overall, the Democrats are much more confident: 40% of Republicans believe that the Democrats will win, but just 12% of Democrats believe that the Republicans will win. They are more motivated: in the second quarter the two leading Democrats raised $60m, against just $32m for the two leading Republicans. And 61% of Democratic primary voters are happy with their choice of candidates, compared with only 36% of Republicans. Generic polls show voters expressing a preference for a Democratic president by a 24-point margin, a gap unheard of since the Watergate era.
The Democrats are also likely to keep Congress. The tide that enabled the party to pick up 31 House seats and six Senate seats in 2006, along with six governorships and 321 state-legislature seats, is still swelling. The Republicans will be defending more vulnerable Senate seats than the Democrats in 2008, and they are losing the race for cash. The public favours Democratic control of Congress by a margin of 10-15 points. Off the record, Republicans use words like “catastrophe” and “Armageddon” to refer to 2008.
The issues that people care about are also tipping the Democrats' way. A Pew Research poll in March discovered growing worry about income inequality combined with growing support for the social safety net. The proportion of Americans who believe that “the government should help the needy even if it means greater debt” has risen from 41% in 1994, at the height of the Republican revolution, to 54% today. The poll also revealed a decline in support for the things that drove the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s, such as traditional moral values.
In 2002 the electorate was equally divided between Democrats and Democratic-leaners (43%) and Republicans and Republican-leaners (43%). Today only 35% align themselves with Republicans, and 50% with Democrats. The Republicans are doing particularly badly among independents (the fastest-growing group in the electorate) and younger voters. The proportion of 18-25-year-olds who identify with the Republican Party has declined from 55% in 1991 to 35% in 2006, according to Pew. Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, notes that the share of Republican voters aged 55 and over has increased from 28% in 1997 to 41% today, whereas the share aged 18-34 has fallen from 25% to 17%. No wonder Ken Mehlman, a former Republican Party chairman who oversaw George Bush's 2004 victory, is now advising hedge funds on how to deal with a Democratic-leaning America.
The Republicans have alienated America's fastest-growing electoral block—Hispanics—with their visceral opposition to immigration reform. Nearly 70% of Hispanics voted Democratic in House races in 2006, up from 55% in 2004. That trend is sure to have been solidified by the Republicans' recent scuppering of the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, in a revolt sodden with xenophobia. Lyndon Johnson once noted that the Democrats' support for civil rights had cost them the South for a generation; the Republican Party's opposition to immigration reform may well have cost it the Hispanic vote for a generation.
Republicans have also whipped up a storm of opposition among middle-of-the-road voters on social issues. The religious right's opposition to abortion has always been an electoral liability: only 30% of voters favour overturning Roe v Wade. But in the past few years social conservatives tested people's patience still further over a federal marriage amendment and Terri Schiavo. Fully 72% of Republican voters opposed the Republicans' attempt to use the might of the federal government to keep the severely brain-damaged woman alive. The voters got their revenge in the 2006 mid-term elections—“bloody Tuesday” in the words of Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group. Rick Santorum, once the religious right's most prominent champion in the Senate, barely scraped 41% of the vote in Pennsylvania. Ken Blackwell, social conservatism's most prominent black champion, went down to a humiliating defeat in the race for the Ohio governorship. Social conservatives lost ballot initiatives on everything from abortion to gay marriage.
Why the conservative crack-up?
The obvious cause of the right's implosion is the implosion of the Bush presidency. Mr Bush has the worst approval ratings since Jimmy Carter—29% according to Newsweek and 31% according to NBC News. Only 19% of Americans think that America is headed in the right direction under Mr Bush. An astonishing 45% of Americans, including 13% of Republicans, support impeaching Mr Bush, according to the American Research Group.
The most obvious cause of the implosion of the Bush presidency is the disaster in Iraq. The Republican Party's biggest advantage over the Democrats has long been on foreign and defence policy. You voted Democratic if you cared about schools and hospitals. But you voted Republican if you cared more about keeping America safe in a dangerous world. September 11th 2001 turbo-charged that advantage. The Republicans used the “war on terror” to roll over the Democrats in elections in 2002 and again in 2004.
But the war in Iraq has buried this vital advantage under a mound of discredited hype (“mission accomplished”) and mind-boggling incompetence. A CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 25% of people approved of Mr Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 63% of respondents did not trust the Bush administration to report honestly about possible threats from other countries. The damage is not limited to the Bush administration: a Rasmussen poll on July 25th-26th found that Mrs Clinton outscores Mr Giuliani as the candidate voters trust most on national security.
Mr Bush has also presided over the biggest expansion in government spending since his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, provoking fury on the right. His prescription-drug benefit was the largest expansion of government entitlements in 40 years. He has increased federal education spending by about 60% and added some 7,000 pages of new federal regulations. Pat Toomey, the head of the Club for Growth, says the conservative base feels “disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government.”
Many conservative activists would like to pin the blame on Mr Bush alone—either because he pursued foolish policies (the paleo-conservative version) or because he pursued sensible policies in a cack-handed manner (the neoconservative version). William Buckley, the conservative movement's pope, says that, if Mr Bush were the leader of a parliamentary system, “it would be expected that he would retire or resign.” Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan-administration economist, accuses him of “betraying” the conservative movement. Other conservatives would like to pin the blame on the Republican Party. “We have to recognise that this was a defeat for Republicans, not for conservatives,” Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, argued after the 2006 mid-term elections.
In fact, the Republican Party in Congress is just as responsible as Mr Bush for most of the recent troubles. The Republican majority routinely appropriated more spending than the president asked for. It also larded spending bills with as much extra pork as possible. The number of congressional “earmarks” for projects in members' districts increased from 1,300 in 1994, when the Republicans took over Congress, to 14,000 in 2005.
The Republican majority also cheered Mr Bush all the way to Baghdad. Add to this the corruption of congressmen like Tom DeLay, a conservative hero, and the semi-corrupt institutional relationship that the Republicans formed with lobbyists, and you see that Mr Bush was only part of a much bigger problem.
Nor can conservatives claim that Mr Bush is a country-club Republican like his father. He has devoted his energies to giving “the movement” what it wants: the invasion of Iraq for the neoconservatives (who had championed it long before September 11th); tax cuts for business and the small-government conservatives; restricting federal funding for stem-cell research for the social conservatives; and conservative judges to please every faction.
This desire to pander to the conservative movement is partly to blame for the administration's practical incompetence. Mr Bush outdid previous Republican presidents in recruiting his personnel from the conservative counter-establishment. But this often meant choosing people for their ideological purity rather than their competence or intelligence. Some 150 Bush administration officials were graduates of Pat Robertson's Regent University, including Monica Goodling, who put on such a lamentable performance before a House inquiry into the firing of nine US attorneys. A more pragmatic president would surely have sacked many of the neoconservative ideologues who have made a hash of American foreign policy
The Republicans' problems are creating a civil war on the right about how to dig themselves out of their hole. This is producing some spectacular intellectual fireworks—fireworks that prove there is still a lot of intellectual life in the right. But such internal strife tends to put off the voters. And this civil war has the added problem that, from the point of view of broadening the Republican coalition, the wrong side has won too many important battles, not least on immigration.
One fight is over the size and scope of government. Small-government conservatives accuse Mr Bush of betraying conservatism's core principle: that government is the problem rather than the solution. Big-government conservatives retort that there is only a limited constituency for small government. The general public strongly opposes cutting entitlements. “Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism,” argues Michael Gerson, Mr Bush's former speechwriter, “an idealism that strangles mercy.”
A second fight is over social conservatism. Libertarians argue that the Republican Party is too much in the pocket of ageing social conservatives such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, activists who do not represent the views of common-or-garden Evangelicals let alone middle-of-the-road Americans. Social conservatives retort that they are the people who deliver the votes: if the Republican Party relies only on business conservatives and libertarians, it will be reduced to a rump.
A third fight concerns Mr Bush's foreign policy, particularly his stubborn defence of the Iraq war. Some conservatives predicted that the “war on terror” might take the place of the “war on communism”, both as a glue holding conservatism together and a guarantee of long-term Republican advantage over the Democrats. That happened for a while. But the sustained unrest in Iraq has opened deep divisions on the right—not least between Mr Bush (who rides off into the sunset in January 2009) and politicians who would like to hang around for a bit longer. Senate Republicans are on the verge of a full-scale revolt against the White House.
It is always tempting to read too much into this or that crisis. David Frum predicted doom for his fellow travellers in “Dead Right” just as Mr Gingrich was about to seize control of Congress. Emmett Tyrell described a conservative crack-up only to see the movement come back together.
The Democrats' good fortune is much more the result of a Republican collapse than a Democratic revival. The March Pew poll shows that the proportion of people who express a positive view of the Democratic Party has actually declined by six points since January 2001. It's just that the proportion of people who express a positive view of the Republican Party has declined by 15 points. The Democratic-controlled Congress is even more unpopular than the Bush White House, with the lowest approval rating in 35 years.
Illustration by Kevin Kallaugher
Americans remain sceptical about the Democrats' favourite tool for improving the world—government action. A Democracy Corps poll found that Americans believe by a majority of 57% to 29% that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life. The same poll found that 83% of people believe that, if the government had more money, it would probably waste it, the highest level of anti-government sentiment in a decade. America is not entering into a new era of liberal activism.
The Democrats have ceded a lot of ground to the conservatives. The party has sidelined liberal groups who oppose the death penalty or want to restrict gun-ownership. The big three Democratic presidential candidates compete with each other to prove how religious they are: Mrs Clinton repeatedly claims that she is a “praying person” who once considered becoming a Methodist minister. The Party put forward anti-abortion candidates in both Colorado and Pennsylvania.
And the conservative movement is at its most deadly as an insurgency. The movement was born during the 1964 Goldwater campaign as a revolt against the liberal establishment. It enjoyed its glory days when it was battling Hillarycare and trying to impeach Bill Clinton. A Clinton presidential nomination would undoubtedly reunite and re-energise the movement. Deeply rooted in gun clubs, anti-tax groups, right-to-life groups and Evangelical churches, American conservatives will never be reduced to the feeble status of their British cousins.
But even when you enter all the qualifications the right's situation is dire. It is a sign of weakness that the conservatives are retreating to their old posture as insurgents, and need a bogeywoman like Mrs Clinton to hold them together.
The Republicans have failed the most important test of any political movement—wielding power successfully. They have botched a war. They have splurged on spending. And they have alienated a huge section of the population. It is now the Democrats' game to win or lose.
Copyright © 2007 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.