Tuesday, 25 November 2003

Republican strategery

Both Tavares Karol and Michael Van Winkle have posts at The Chicago Report trying to figure out the current strategy of the Republicans. Karol implies—although he doesn’t explicitly argue—that Republicans have borrowed Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” strategy and taken it to a new level. On the other hand, what Karol sees as good strategy, Van Winkle sees as being to the long-term detriment of the party:

Clinton left office without giving the Democrats any direction. The party under Clinton existed to serve his presidency, to defend his antics and get him reelected. All the while, Clinton’s policies were creating fissures in the party, fissures he had no intention of smoothing over with his leadership. When a party is split between two possible futures it’s up to the leader to pick one and raise the sails. Otherwise, the party is left aimlessly afloat and burdened with resolving the structural cracks itself. This is a very difficult process and we’re seeing it played out in the Democratic Primaries. The Democrats aren’t sure what their party is and where it’s going.

Bush is doing the same number on the Republicans. Sure, he is working toward reelection and will probably be successful, but what about that other role, Republican Party leader? Well, he doesn’t seem to take that role very seriously. He isn’t leading the GOP toward any coherent destiny beyond his own presidency. This is the primary difference between Bush and Reagan. They both cut taxes, but the latter did it with a vision for the future. The former has done it, primarily for political expediency (not that I am complaining). The Republicans have to ask themselves, “what happens after Bush is gone?” “Do we like the direction the party is moving?”

If the current course (or nonexistent course) is maintained, when Bush leaves office (whether 2004 or 2008) the GOP will undoubtedly witness the same kind of infighting that the Democrats are currently working through. The Dems’ problems may be exacerbated by their being the party out of power, but if the GOP is left adrift then they (the Democrats) won’t be out of power for long.

Perhaps it is the lot of parties in this media-centric age to regress to being personalistic in nature; many political scientists (myself included) have assumed that the personalistic nature of parties in developing countries (think of Mahathir in Malaysia, or Lee in Singapore) is a phase that will be outgrown as parties become more institutionalized. But maybe that’s a more widespread—and reemerging—phenomenon, particularly within ruling parties; can we think of Labour quite the same way without Tony Blair, the RPR without Jacques Chirac, the SPD without Gerhard Schröder, the Canadian Liberals without Jean Chrétien, Forza Italia without Silvio Berlusconi, or the Republicans without George W. Bush?

With the institutional power of American parties in rapid decline relative to both candidates and interest groups (witness George Soros’ large donation to MoveOn.org, rather than the Democrats), thanks to the incumbency advantage, widespread adoption of open primaries, and McCain-Feingold, it seems likely that the United States will see more of these fights for the heart and soul of the party, as candidates and interest groups try to gain control of the remaining institutional advantages of the major parties—their automatic access to the ballot and their “brand recognition.” Why build a third party from scratch when you can just hijack the Republicans or Democrats?

This is today’s entry in the Beltway Traffic Jam.