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February 04, 2010

Mass. Movement? Towards a Coalition for a (new) Republican Majority - Brendan Simms sketches out a strategy

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - sketches out a strategy for the US Republicans.

The stunning upset victory of the Republican candidate Scott Brown in the Massachusetts senatorial election occasioned by the death of Ted Kennedy has electrified American pundits. There has been much discussion of whether it was Brown's charisma or the tepid performance of the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, which decided the contest.

Pollsters are picking over which issue was ultimately decisive: health care - as most believe - or national security, which is the view of Brown's own top strategist Eric Fehrnstrom. One way or the other, it is now much clearer than it was after the Democratic gubernatorial defeats in New Jersey and Virginia last year, that the long marginalisation of the Republican Party widely predicted after the meltdown of November 2008 is far from a foregone conclusion.

This should not surprise anyone. Consider the obstacle faced by John McCain: he was looking to succeed an unpopular second-term president from his own party; he was up against a charismatic and "transformational" Democratic rival; he was deeply committed to an unpopular war; and just before the election the economy collapsed. One could go on.

All the same, McCain secured nearly 47% of the vote, a very respectable result which the vagaries of the electoral college obscured. Given that after the health-care and Iraq compromises President Obama will have huge difficulties in motivating his own base in 2012, the arithmetic for the Republicans was not looking too bad even before the Massachusetts election.

Against this background, and with the Boston wind in their sails, Republicans might well be tempted to play it safe, relying on Mr Obama to self-destruct, or giving the charismatic Scott Brown a national platform, or trying to co-opt as many of the new "tea party" activists who have been scourging Democrat spending and health plans the length and breadth of the country.

That would be a mistake. The false dawn of the 1994 elections, when Newt Gingrich's Contract with America swept to victory only for Bill Clinton to win the presidential election handily in 1996 is a good example of how a purely Congressional and populist strategy for recovery can end in tears. The filibuster-enabling additional opposition senate seat is a major headache for the Democrats, but may also allow the administration to paint the Republicans as obstructionist. If Americans - a majority of whom clearly want some sort of health-care reform - perceive this to be the case, they could well give Mr Obama the benefit of the doubt again in 2012.

Moreover, we still know too little of Mr Brown. It may be that he takes Washington by storm, but the media experience with Sarah Palin (very unfairly traduced in my view) should make us cautious about the chances of untested populist protest candidates.

And as for the "tea party", this very fissile combination of independents, Republican ultras, and down-right crackpots needs to be treated with great care. We know nothing of its foreign policy stances, for example, beyond a certain knee-jerk muscularity. I suspect it will soon show its true isolationist colours.

Today the tea party has badly burned the Democrats, but tomorrow it could blow up in Republican faces. We are beginning to see this in places like Florida, where moderate Republicans such as governor Charlie Crist face "tea party" challenges. If the result of Massachusetts is simply to accelerate the right-ward drift of the GOP, while encouraging Mr Obama to drag his wayward party back to the centre, then another Democrat win in 2012 is assured.

The Boston result should be the opportunity for something quite different, namely the chance to explore a new kind of Republican Party We still do not know enough about the causes of the victory, but the big picture suggests that it is now possible to conceive of a GOP which must be informed by its southern and western loyalists but should no longer be totally dependent on them. To do this, the party will have to build on existing strengths, to be sure, by finally acting on its strong rhetorical commitment to cut government waste and promote self-reliance. But more than anything else, the party needs to reclaim old strengths. It needs to take back the clothes it shed, and the Democrats stole, over the past forty years. Here are some of the traditions that need to be repatriated.

1. The GOP is the party of Abraham Lincoln
It needs to dispel the impression that it is hostile to African-American aspirations, in particular by showing that its commitment to families, communities, and the entrepreneurial spirit is a surer road to advancement than government handouts and politically correct programmes. There should be no room in the party for anybody who apologises for racism, present - or past. Unfortunately, the "macaca" and other recent incidents, make this injunction necessary.

2. The GOP is the party of Ronald Reagan
For Reagan the promotion of US values abroad was as important as their defence at home. This means that the party should eschew a return to the failed Kissingerian "realism" of yesteryear, by supporting the democratic transformation of the Middle East, the defence of Israel and the creation of a democratic Palestinian state within borders that guarantee the security of both.

3. Above All, the GOP is the party of Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt was the founder of US environmentalism and a supporter of strong government where it is needed, in the provision of education, transport and national security. The party therefore needs to be more vigorous in support of overdue large-scale infrastructural programmes which will stimulate the economy without leading to long-term bloated government payrolls.

It also needs to make some positive proposals on how health care - the spiralling costs of which are a major problem - is to be reformed, an issue which Teddy Roosevelt himself first put on the political agenda in 1912.

Finally, if TR justified the creation of the wilderness parks with reference to the heroic "frontier" myth, his successors must link the protection of the environment to the promotion of American values, for example by reducing dependence on dictatorships in the Middle East. If the connection between health care, the environment, government-spending on productive projects and US national greatness is convincingly made, the public will support it.

The same is true of government financial regulation, which was largely invented by TR's Republican administration in the early 1900s. He was the original "trust buster". He would never have accepted that there were banks that were too important to be subject to the laws of the market. The new GOP must embrace the principle that if a bank is "too big to fail", it is too big, period.

About forty years ago, Republicans and Democrats began to exchange certain geographic and political constituencies. For many years, this paid handsome electoral dividends for the GOP, even if these came at a cultural price. By November 2008, at the latest, it had become clear that the rate of exchange was no longer favourable, not least because Barack Obama showed that the south was no longer the "south". The Boston result shows that two can play at that game. Now is the time to show the Democrats that the north-east is no longer the "north-east" either. It is time to assemble the Coalition for a new Republican Majority.

The author thanks Mr Charles Laderman for very useful comments on an earlier draft.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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