Crackup? Not So Fast.

February 10, 2008
"We are at the end of the Reagan era." Or, at least, that is the claim of voices as diverse as Newt Gingrich and Ed Rollins on the right and Sen. Chuck Schumer and pollster Stanley Greenberg on the left. It is true the Republican Party is having difficulty retooling its message for the 21st century. But so is the Democratic Party.

Every presidential election is about change, and no more so than at the end of a two-term president's time in the White House. Parties have to constantly update themselves if they hope to remain relevant. The difficulty for both Republicans and Democrats is that our political system is at a point where more than the normal amount of party growth and development is needed. Both parties are suffering the consequences of seeing substantial parts of their 20th-century agendas adopted; both parties are struggling to fashion new answers to the new challenges of a young century.

But that's not to say that the Reagan legacy is exhausted. Ronald Reagan's legacy was not simply that he was "a campaigner and orator of uncommon skill," as Don Campbell argued last week in USA Today. President Reagan's gifts to the Republican Party were ideas: growing the economy through tax cuts, limiting government's size, forcefully confronting totalitarian threats, making human rights a centerpiece of America's foreign policy, respecting unborn human life, empowering the individual with more freedom. Those ideas endure. They give Republicans a philosophical foundation on which to build. The Reagan coalition has a natural desire to stick together. Fiscal, defense and values conservatives have more in common with each other than with any major element of the Democratic Party's leadership.

Democrats have a similar philosophical storehouse in the ideas of FDR and LBJ. Both expanded the size and scope of the federal government and saw it in almost an entirely positive light: as an agent of economic redistribution from the rich to the less affluent, as a provider to the poor and the disabled and as an enforcer of equal rights and equal justice. The Democratic Party has two challenges. One is that the modern economy has led voters to prefer markets, decentralization and consumer choice far more than centralized control by government and the substitution of "expert" decisions for those of the individual. The other challenge is that many in that party mistake the "Third Way" tactics of the Clinton years for a substantive approach to governing. Triangulation—making yourself look good at the expense of allies and adversaries in both parties—is lousy for providing coherent answers to modern issues.

Why then the media's recent fascination with the supposed demise of the Republican Party? What are the reasons given for why, at least when it comes to the Republicans, "the party's over," as NEWSWEEK recently pronounced? First, we are told the GOP nomination has not been won "fairly quickly," as in recent contests. This is a horrible misremembering of history. The senior Bush took 45 days after the first contest to secure the nomination in 1988. It took Bob Dole 35 days to become the presumptive nominee in 1996. The current president took 45 days to clear the field in 2000. The first contest this year was on Jan. 3. Let's at least give the process until the middle or end of February before pundits start predicting doom because of how long it's taking. And if the Republican nomination not being settled is evidence of disaster, what does the Democratic nomination being up for grabs say? It's normal for both parties' nominees to be undecided at this point. The season is not moving too slowly. If anything, it is moving too quickly this time, with 38 contests in the first 33 days.

Second, we are told recently by Susan Page, also in USA Today, that "never before in modern times has there been such a muddle," and then by Jon Meacham in this magazine that the "chaotic nature of the Republican primary race" means "the party of Reagan is now divided in ways it has not been in more than a generation." Many who witnessed the primary battles of 2000, 1996, 1992 or 1988 might disagree. By their nature, primary races are chaotic. Then a nominee emerges, and the chaos recedes (most of the time). If spirited competition on the Republican side is evidence of a crackup, then what about the Democratic battle? It is focused more and more on race and gender, and Hillary Clinton has the highest negatives of any candidate at this point in an open race for the presidency. The Democratic House and Senate have plummeted to the poorest congressional approval ratings in history.

Third, we are told Democrats have raised more money. You will search in vain for a similar declaration of last rites for the Democrats in 2000 when Republicans outraised them. And having more money doesn't decide the contest. Consider 2004, when Democratic presidential candidates, committees and 527s outspent their Republican counterparts by $124 million—and lost. Besides, the RNC has nearly eight times the cash on hand as the DNC. Just a month has passed since voting began, and nine months remain before November. Let's see what happens to Republican bank accounts as the year goes on.

Maybe we are not seeing the crackup of the GOP. Rather, America is more likely to be at the start of an intense and exciting election. The contest will be hard fought, the actions of the candidates each day hugely significant. It's far too early to draw sweeping conclusions about the health of either party; the presidential race, after all, has barely begun. Lots of surprises lie ahead.

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