The most significant transformation the Republican party has undergone has been its shift from a broad-based, moderate conservative party to an exclusive, narrow-based, populist political organization. This new GOP has been able to win five of seven presidential elections between 1980 and 2004 and control both Houses of Congress from 1994 to 2006. Leaders like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were able to put a more inclusive face on their party—though it was sometimes betrayed by their policies—while George W. Bush relied on a sales-pitch of compassionate conservatism to attract independent voters. By 2008, however, the sham was up. America was changing, but the GOP had not kept pace. Conservatives like David Frum now see a bleak future for the GOP unless it changes and learns from its defeats in 2006 and 2008. This is why the selection of a new Chairman of the RNC was so noteworthy. Choosing former Maryland Lt.Governor Michael Steele, an African-American, indicates that the GOP may be ready to change course.
Steele is a moderate political figure that will help the GOP re-connect with its history. Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery, would have been ashamed of his party’s southern strategy and the veiled racism of the late 60’s and 70’s. The African-American vote was not the exclusive domain of the Democrats leading up to the early 60’s. But ever since the 1964 election, blacks have overwhelmingly voted Democratic. In the meantime, Republicans did not seem to care. The choice of Steele, coming after Obama’s victory, sends the right signals. Most likely, it will take time for the GOP to make inroads among African-American voters due to Obama’s popularity, but it is an important first step.
Another dimension has to do with conservatism. Social conservatives and neo-conservatives hijacked the Republican agenda nearly 30 years ago and never gave it back. Eisenhower and Nixon were traditional conservatives—open to change, but fond of traditional values and conservative economic principles. Bipartisanship in domestic policy making and multilateralism in foreign policy were hallmarks of that GOP era. The party of Eisenhower did not dismantle the New Deal and America was better for it. America is best served when it is governed from the centre, sometimes a little left, sometimes right. Michael Steele will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to bring the GOP back to the centre, because the current crop of Republicans in Congress have generally forgotten they belong to the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower.