Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Where did the Northeastern Republicans go?

This post by Ross Douthat seems to be making the rounds. His thesis: "Now, of course, both Bush and Gingrich are gone, taking the shield with them, and suddenly northeastern swing voters are willing to consider 'voting for a Republican candidate as a way of expressing frustration with the ruling Democrats.'"

Douthat's argument seems compelling considering recent events. After all, Brown is likely to be elected to the Senate and Christie became New Jersey's governor today. NE Republicans are on the rise! But if you look back during the Bush era--say 2004, the year that W got re-elected--Northeast Republicans weren't really doing too badly. held the governor's mansions in Maryland, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Even now, they still have Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut, though none of these will likely remain Republican after this year. (And New Jersey, of course, which will.) This is not to mention the four Republican Senators from the Northeast. Not all of these states have completely hapless Republican Parties, either--New Hampshire had a strongly Republican legislature until 2007. So did Pennsylvania.

The thing about all these Republicans, though, is that their appeal was tied up in that they were Northeastern Republicans--socially tolerant, fiscally conservative, uninterested in the culture wars. Scott Brown and Chris Christie have managed to sell themselves in this mold. I have strong doubts that either really fits it, but I suppose we shall see. But there was never any reason not to believe that the Olympia Snowes and the Jim Douglases couldn't rise again, because they never really died off. They are, though, little more than an appendage to the national Republican Party, and a countercyclical one at that, if one takes Ross's pattern seriously. But it's important to note that Snowe, Collins, Jodi Rell, and all the rest of them take extensive care to present themselves as nonpartisan and moderate. I don't think I've ever read Sue Collins refer to herself as a conservative. That sort of Republican can still win in New England, at least for a time.

Ultimately, I think that Douthat is extrapolating too much from these results. Christie and Brown had the fortune to run against candidates that were either terminally unpopular (Corzine) or laughably inept (Coakley). Few observers seem to believe that either of these Republicans could have beaten a stronger candidate, such as former New Jersey Governor Dick Codey or Congressman Mike Capuano. To be fair, there are no doubt plenty of weak Democrats whose election was due mostly to a favorable political environment in '05-'06, and it would not be surprising to me if moderate Republicans were able to beat those guys. Deval Patrick seems like one example of this trend. But Ross's argument here is strange and self-defeating. He believes that poor GOP fortunes in the Northeast are due to the fact that the GOP is dominated by the South, culturally speaking. But that won't change if the GOP picks up a few more congressional seats in the Northeast. If history repeats itself, 2010 will result in gains for the GOP and the resurgence of a party dominated by angry Southerners, a la Limbaugh (and Palin, though she's only Southern culturally), which will...destroy the GOP in the Northeast again, by his analysis. The problem with this sort of expansion is the underlying culture of the GOP, and the most logical narrative for the data is that the GOP is only able to do well in this region when it is leaderless and powerless and merely able to pick up Dem-leaning indies who are fed up with their leaders, and that once that period ends and the GOP's personalities and agendas surface, it loses any gains it makes. If the Republicans really wanted to take a stake in the Northeast, in good times and bad, they would have to seriously moderate the culture war stuff as well as their actual policies in any number of areas. They won't do this unless they absolutely have to, and it's not clear that they have to--not yet, anyway. After all, why should they try to convince the most liberal region in the country to back a conservative party for other than protest reasons? It makes no sense. So I doubt that Northeastern Republicans will really become a force in national politics. Instead, they will merely be a random countercyclical instrument of discontent, with a maximal range of the odd moderate governor's mansion and senate seat, and anything else will probably be lost when the political tides inevitably turn. Indeed, this already appears to be happening with the Democrats' recent gains in the South. Democrats managed to snag a few seats in places like Alabama, Mississippi and Texas over the past few cycles, but these conservative Democrats were really expressions of anger at the ruling Republicans and George Bush, and now they will be quickly disposed of by their constituencies.

With respect to Scott Brown in particular, I'm not quite sure what to make of him. Needless to say I agree with Andrew Sullivan here, and if Brown were actually proposing serious measures to solve "conservative" problems like spending and debt--I use quotes because they are everyone's problems, though not ones taken seriously by actual conservatives--there would be some reason to hope that something good would come of his election. But there isn't anything like that. Brown is right-wing on foreign policy and civil liberties, right-wing on taxes and spending, right-wing on banking and climate change, though he is somewhat moderate on social issues. I think it's entirely possible that Brown just ran both the smartest and the stupidest campaign ever in American politics--smart in that it was tactically sound, strategic, and featured flawless mechanics and messaging, but stupid in that his coalition is inherently untenable. He's assembled the far right teabaggers and independents together, but these are not the same groups and have vastly different expectations as to what his "change" should mean. If Brown does what he says he'll do--vote against the bank tax, against financial regulations, and against climate change--he'll lose the crossover indies he won thanks to his emotional appeals. If he winds up voting for one or more of these policies to remain viable in the general election, he'll alienate the teabaggers. Democrats will be out for Brown's blood in 2012--in fact, I'm guessing hungry Dems will enter the contest right after this year's midterms, if not before that, unofficially, slamming Brown for every unpopular conservative vote he takes, such as downing bank regs or against climate change. "Retaking Ted's Seat" will become a cause celebre among Democratic activists, and next time, nothing will be taken for granted. And in 2012, Barack Obama will be running for a second term against what will very likely be an insane wingnut (let's just say I'm not holding out hope for a sane Republican candidate like Mitch Daniels). Brown will have to shrink from that person's coattails, and the cycle will continue. But it should be interesting to see if Brown sticks to his guns. Since he's a career politician and not a crusader, I suspect he'll wind up supporting climate change at least, and figure that he'll be able to secure the nomination again as the incumbent from a challenge on the right. Should be interesting to watch.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.