Monday, December 22, 2008

Permanent minority

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Noam Scheiber summarizing an interesting Ron Brownstein column from last Friday:

It's hard not to see the GOP's opposition to an auto industry bailout as suicidal, given that the industrial midwest -- where a bailout is obviously popular -- is one of the few swing regions they had some hope of recapturing. If you write off the Midwest, you're talking about a mostly regional party that's confined to the South and a few plains and western states. Not exactly the foundation for a new majority.

I think this is right -- and I think it was right before the auto bailout came up. The Republican Party has become not the permanent governing majority Karl Rove envisioned but essentially a national minority party with regional strength in the more conservative parts of the country.

Take a look at the presidential, Senate, and House election maps at CNN.

Not so long ago, it was widely believed -- thanks to successful Republican spin and a media establishment more than willing to play right along -- that the country was solidly Republican, with the Democrats a regional, minority party that did well along the Pacific coast, in the Northeast, and in the Upper Midwest. This wasn't the case, but the 2000 and 2004 presidential maps suggested just such a divide, and so a narrative was born.

But look at those maps now: "Red" America is now a band that runs from Utah and Idaho east through Wyoming and the Dakotas, down through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and east again into the Deep South. I don't include Arizona, which the Republicans won mostly because it's McCain's homestate. Obama did extremely well in the Southwest, as well as in swing states in the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, Iowa) and in the less deep parts of the South (Virginia, North Carolina, Florida).

The House map shows greater complexity, but the trend is pretty much the same. Republicans won the much less populous parts of the West (inland California, Oregon, and Washington), as well as much of the Midwest (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois), and even much of central Pennsylvania, but the Democrats won almost all of Arizona and Colorado, all of New Mexico, the Dakotas, the border districts of Texas, most of Arkansas, and even much of the Deep South. It is more difficult to discern a clear red-blue divide here, but, again, the country seems to be tilting heavily towards the Democrats.

Now, nothing is permanent in politics. Many of the Democrats' Congressional wins came in conservative parts of the country that could easily flip back to the Republicans in future elections. Furthermore, the Democrats did well in large part because of Obama. The Democrats may control both ends of Capitol Hill, but there are questions as to how united they are and whether they will be able to sustain themselves in the majority over the long term. The more conservative among them will likely look to their own political futures and frequently cross the aisle, and, of course, a rejuvenated Republican Party will eventually -- later, if not sooner -- eat into the Democratic majorities and threaten to take back the White House, reddening the electoral map once again.

But rejuvenation hardly seems likely, at the moment, for a party that is not just regional but rigidly ideological and increasingly extreme on issues from abortion to taxes to energy and global warming. Republican positions are still popular, perhaps, in the reddest of the red states (e.g., Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma), but the party is far to the right of most Americans on most issues. No, the Democrats didn't do so well electorally in 2006 and 2008 simply on the issues -- there were, as always, multiple factors at work, including a deeply unpopular president and his deeply unpopular war -- but there is no denying that the Democrats' positions on the issues, positions more mainstream than those held by the Republicans, have allowed them to make significant gains in traditionally Republican parts of the country.

Republican opposition to the auto bailout just proves the larger point: The GOP is ideologically extreme, regional in focus, and, to more and more Americans, simply repellent. Republicans won't be a permanent minority -- not with the way politics works -- but they could be in the minority for a long time yet.

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