There are optimists within the Republican Party. They look at the wreckage left behind after last year's elections, and recall 1964. That was the year that Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president, was so badly trounced that pundits proclaimed the GOP dead. But it was also the year that a new breed of conservative activists, myself among them, brought a new energy to the party that eventually reshaped it and led to years of Republican domination of the executive branch.
The whistle-past-the-graveyard crowd imagines that this year's doomsayers have simply forgotten history: Four years after the 1964 disaster, they remind us, Republicans won the presidency. We'll just do it again, they say. But the Republicans' defeat last year was far different from their 1964 loss -- and it will be a lot harder to come back from.
In 1964, Goldwater was seen as an anomaly. He was not representative of his own party, and, to a large extent, was rejected by it. The conservatives voters so soundly rejected in 2008 are seen not as anomalous but as representative of the larger party.
The Richard Nixon who won the presidency in 1968 had been vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, who left the White House with his popularity intact. The GOP candidate in 2012 will have to overcome the nation's memory of the previous Republican in that office, George W. Bush, who was less popular in most of America than the New York Yankees are in Boston. There will be no "glorious days of Republican leadership" to hark back to unless the party's candidates continue to dredge up memories of Ronald Reagan, who left Washington two decades ago, before a good many younger voters were born.
When Republicans rebounded in 1968, they were a national party, helped to victory by strong support in areas where, today, the party wanders in a political wilderness.
There are now large chunks of the country almost without a Republican presence. Draw a map of the east side of the U.S., from the tip of Florida to the Canadian border, and see how many Republican senators or governors you find. In 1969, by contrast, the GOP held both Senate seats in New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Vermont; there were Republican senators from New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, even Massachusetts. In the House, Republicans held three of the six Connecticut seats, five of 12 in Massachusetts, both in New Hampshire, 15 in New York, seven of 10 in Wisconsin. You get the idea.
What can you say about the Republican Party in 2009? That it has Alabama locked up? Well, that's not even true: Democrats are far more competitive in the South than Republicans are in much of the country.
It's certainly true that to some degree Arlen Specter's defection from the Republican Party was opportunism. Specter, after all, became a Republican in the first place not because of any particular political point of view but because, in 1966, when both Republicans and Democrats were trying to recruit him to run for district attorney in Philadelphia, the GOP promised more support. Specter himself has said that he's now a Democrat because that's the best way to get elected again. To Specter, party has never mattered much.
But there's more to the story. While Specter will not march in lock step with Democrats any more than he did with Republicans, he will vote with them on many procedural issues, and in the Senate, that's no small matter. So the loss matters. And that's why Republicans need to take seriously the fact that Specter was not so much seduced by Democrats as driven away by a GOP that has become increasingly intolerant of disagreement within its ranks and seemingly incapable of putting forth an appealing platform.
At one point, Republicans put forth a coherent, idealistic vision of America, one that summoned it to greatness. There was a profound belief in the dignity of the individual, a reverence for the Constitution and the founders who proposed it, a belief in doing whatever it took (including spending tax dollars to build a military second to none) to preserve the peace. Republican platforms preached prudence and the virtues of small business.
Today, the Republican belief system has degenerated into an embarrassing hodgepodge that worships political victory more than ideas; supports massive deficits; plunges the nation into "just-in-case" wars without adequate troops, supplies or armor; dismisses constitutional strictures; and campaigns on a platform of turning national problem-solving over to "Joe the Plumber." It's hard to see how all that points the way to a reawakening of voters to trust in the GOP.
This may suggest, of course, that the party should just toss in the towel, accept its designated role as the Whigs of the 21st century and leave governance to its betters. But American freedom depends on power checking power. If Democrats control the legislative and executive branches without meaningful opposition, the country will be the weaker for it. Some of President Obama's initiatives would dramatically shift the boundaries between public and private, reshape the relationship between citizens and government and alter the lens through which America views its international commitments. These are serious matters and deserve serious, and constructive, engagement.
Merely attacking administration proposals and labeling Obama a "socialist" will only ensure that instead of rebounding, as the GOP did in 1968, the party will slip even further into irrelevance. And that will not be good for America.