No one can deny that the GOP, celebrating 155 years of existence this year, has been a significant factor in the American polity. The Republicans have won 22 presidential elections to the Democrats’ 16, and can lay claim to the one president that transcended partisan politics–Abraham Lincoln. No Democratic president in history comes close, not even FDR. Lincoln’s leadership in the civil war and his abolition of slavery are often portrayed as American achievements as opposed to Republican successes. The GOP has also had at least three dominant periods in which they fashioned social, economic, and international policy: 1893 to 1912, 1921 to 1933 and 1980 to 2008. There were excesses along the way but, generally speaking, the party’s history revolves around a legitimate conception of America and how it should be governed. That has been true until this year.
Ever since Obama’s inauguration, the Republicans have struggled to gain any traction as a viable alternative. Since then, Obama’s approval numbers have gone down sharply, but the Republicans have not benefited in any noticeable way. Last week’s silly outburst by Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, may have made him a hero to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the rest of the lunatic right. But it did little to make his party seem like legitimate counterweight to the Democrats. Similarly, this Saturday’s Tea Party protests seem grassroots enough, but the rhetoric emerging from its spokespersons leaves the impression that the Republican party is now just a party of protest. It is no longer playing the role of the guardian of conservatism. Consider, for instance, how Sarah Palin’s false charges of death panels did little other than derail a legitimate debate on health care reform. As a result, the battle over health care is now an intra-party contest within the Democratic party.
What is astonishing is how the Republican leadership seems oblivious to all this. It is now obvious the Democrats have given up on getting any bipartisan support regarding healthcare reform or on climate change legislation. You would expect more support from the GOP on the economy considering that many of the initiatives were started by George Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, a Republican nominee. Same goes for Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Even John McCain, a moderate Republican and the co-author of an immigration reform bill with Ted Kennedy, voted against her. Sotomayor was not a controversial choice and represented an opportunity for the GOP to make inroads with Hispanics. On health care, according to many observers, some of the GOP’s ideas will make their way into the final package and there is a real possibility that the dreaded public option will be dropped. At the end of the day, the image conveyed at Obama’s speech last week was that of a bunch of grumpy white men sitting on their hands and contributing very little to the debate.
Is it too late for the Republicans? No, not if the Senate Finance committee comes up with a proposal that has potential to garner some bipartisan support down the road. Still, Sarah Palin’s missive I referenced above has come to symbolize the shallow, oppose-at-all-costs approach to public policy that has dominated the public discourse since last January. Quite frankly, Palin energizes a base that talk radio hosts like Limbaugh and Beck use to exploit fear and misinformation. Even McCain, who keeps defending Palin, sometimes with apparent discomfort, contradicts her view on the death panels. And yet, Palin leads many polls for the 2012 Republican nomination and will draw huge crowds once she hits the speech circuit this fall—this, despite how pathetic she was in interviews with Katie Couric of CBS and Charles Gibson of ABC when tasked with explaining policy. As long as her views drive the debate away from any reasonable proposals coming from Republicans in Congress, the GOP will remain marginal in the debate over any policy direction.