I was not suggesting that John McCain’s super-majority among white working-class voters offered a basis for Republican rebuilding. Just the opposite! I have been banging the drum for a year warning of Republican trouble ahead—and emphasizing the need for new Republican policies to attract new voters, especially college-educated voters.
My point was simply this: While Republicans lost in 2008, they did not lose nearly so badly as might have been expected. John McCain won only 46 percent of the vote. That’s a beating, yes. But it’s not nearly so bad a beating as the elder George Bush received in the recession year of 1992 or as Jimmy Carter suffered in 1980. McCain ran nine points stronger than Bush and six points stronger than Carter. I think that’s interesting and useful information.
As Republicans rebuild, they need to take the measure of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are obvious to all. Others are less apparent: for example, our fundraising difficulties look likely to grow even more acute in the 2010 cycle.
Yet the strengths are real, too. The Republican Party remains in touch with something deep and integral to the American nation. Republicans are more likely to describe themselves as proud of America than Democrats. They are more optimistic both about themselves and the country. And as this election proved beyond doubt, they have an important, residual attachment to their party even in bad times.
At the same time, Democrats face some severe strategic dilemmas. The party is a coalition that draws its strength from the top and bottom of American society. That raises questions like: How will Democrats handle the immigration problem?
It’s an issue that has become more and more important to more and more voters. The Democrats’ upper-income supporters profit from current loose immigration policies. Many of the Democrats’ lower-income supporters are recent immigrants themselves or else the relatives of recent immigrants. They profit, too.
But the costs of current policy are borne by middle-income taxpayers, who through their property taxes pay the cost of the schools, hospitals, roads, and prisons required by legal and illegal immigrants, and by less-skilled workers, including many black Americans, whose wages are squeezed by the newcomers.
Democrats will likely continue the current lenient policy. Middle-class voters will very rationally prefer a policy of enforcement. Reconciling these imperatives will not be easy. The choice that Democrats make will reveal much truth about what today’s Democratic Party is—and about whom it most faithfully represents.
Celebration’s over, Shrum. Politics has resumed.