Across the post-election landscape, Republicans have called for a reappraisal of the party’s relevance and rationale. A tide of blue has left few red enclaves outside the Great Plains and the deep South, with even North Carolina and Virginia falling to the Democrats. Predictably, conservative true believers favor a move even farther right. However, pragmatists and some influential conservative commentators have concluded that threadbare condemnations of liberalism, hollow attacks on “unpatriotic” Democrats, and ritualistic charges about “class warfare” and tax increases are the residue of a bygone era. These Republicans envision a broader reach to suburban, younger, and minority voters.
While the post-mortems on the death of the Reagan-Bush era differ, they have one feature in common: Everyone seems to agree that something must be done.
Except Frum. He cites a pointed observation by retiring Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia—a capable legislator denied a chance even to run in a Republican Senate primary because he bears the non-scarlet letter of moderation. Davis said the Republican brand is so discredited that “if we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.” So far, so good. But Frum immediately pivots to an improbable celebration of the “robust . . . market share” McCain won as a foundation for the Republican future. Frum’s silver lining has a lot of clouds, political and otherwise.
First, the political front: Frum inches up McCain’s share of the vote from 46 to 47 percent, apparently to enable a slightly favorable comparison with Michael Dukakis’s performance in what Frum calls “the not-so-bad Democratic year of 1988.” This is the first time I’ve read that doing as well as Dukakis is an encouraging sign.
If the popular vote is Frum’s preferred metric, then perhaps he should note that Barack Obama secured the second highest percentage of any first term President since Dwight Eisenhower—higher than Reagan’s total in the realigning year of 1980. Frum focuses instead on a racial booby prize: McCain’s lead in “the white vote.” But the trend here is all wrong for Republicans. Obama increased the Democratic share among white voters by seven percent in Ohio; 15 percent in Virginia; 17 percent in North Carolina; and an astounding 22 percent in Indiana—where he actually carried white working-class voters.
At the same time, Hispanic support for Republicans collapsed, a seismic shift triggered by the party’s scarring (and scary) rhetoric during the immigration debate. The fallout here has only begun. Within a few years, Texas, where Obama captured 44 percent of the vote without campaigning, is likely to change from red to blue.
So Frum’s forensic analysis offers Republicans little more than demographic doom, ignoring altogether another, potentially decisive, trend—that younger white voters went heavily for Obama. Even worse, his recommendations would further disgrace the party of Lincoln, which, in effect, he proposes should become even more the party of Rove.
How would Frum mobilize what he calls the Republicans’ “residual assets” (and what others less charitably call the Republican “rump”)?
First, appeal to “nationalism.” Frum describes the exuberant reaction to Obama’s victory in Kenya and decides that Americans might ask: “Who is this guy working for anyway?” This is ridiculous. Election night here brought outpourings of relief and happiness everywhere, not only in Asia and Africa but across Europe, Canada and, most significantly, these United States. Is an American President only supposed to be popular in majority-white nations? Or is he or she perhaps only supposed to be white?
Second, Frum advises Republicans to go after Democrats as the party of “affirmative action” and “the racial spoils system.” He puts an edge on this recipe for backlash politics by positing Republicans as the true representatives of “American indigenous culture.” (Who knew they represented Native Americans?) He pictures Obama as someone who “offers a very different vision of what it means to be an American.” Incredibly, amid the dismal gloom of President Bush’s poll ratings, Frum concludes that Bush is seen by Americans as “more authentically their own.” This is exactly the stereotype of “the real America” that failed disastrously in the campaign and left John McCain’s reputation in the bargain bin.
Frum does pay lip service to the idea that Republicans need “new policies and a new tone.” But he would marry these to base appeals that would again lead the Republicans down the dirt road to defeat.
When I heard McCain’s graceful concession speech last Tuesday, I thought: Where has that guy been for the past few months? The McCain of election night would have been better for America—and he would have had a better chance to win American votes, indigenous or otherwise. Something like that is what a lot of Republicans are thinking and saying now. But are there enough of them to pull the party back from the brink? Instead, the party very well may follow Frum’s advice. If I were to put politics—and not country—first, my reaction would be this: Go ahead. Make my decade.