The US Republicans leave their Convention in much better heart than most dared to hope. Their President has had lower approval ratings for a longer period than any ever previously recorded (George W Bush was mentioned sixteen times more frequently by Democrats in Denver than by Republicans in St Paul). Less than two years ago the Grand Old Party lost control of Congress, Iraq was going badly wrong, the Democrats were raising way more money and none of their presidential candidates was inspiring the base.
Most pundits still expect Barack Obama to beat John McCain on 4th November but the Republicans no longer fear a rout. Since Sarah Palin’s arrival on the scene – particularly after her barnstorming acceptance speech – many hope for victory and the McCain warchest is at last filling with dollars.
It would be a remarkable achievement for the Republicans to rehabilitate themselves while they still occupy the White House. Most parties are unable to understand the need for change until the electorate has voted them out. The midterm thumpin‘ they received in November 2006 has forced them to bring forward their ‘modernisation’.
What form has ‘modernisation’ taken?
John McCain was adopted as their nominee: Senator McCain was not popular among core Republican voters. His relationship with Bush has been uneasy since the latter defeated him in a brutal battle for the 2000 nomination. Since appearing together at a fundraiser in May this year it is reported that they haven’t spoken. Bush has voted against the Republican majority on tax, campaign finance reform and immigration. Many rightists of the Coulter tendency vowed never to support him. Realising that a conventional Republican candidate was unlikely to prosper the sensible majority in the GOP swallowed hard and picked McCain. Adjustments in his own positions – on tax and oil exploration in particular – made him an easier pill to digest.
McCain picked Sarah Palin: McCain’s
choice of Alaska’s Governor as his running mate has sprinkled some
stardust over the Republican brand. Nearly as many Americans watched
her acceptance speech as watched Barack Obama’s speech a week earlier
(and he had commanded a near record TV audience). For months and months
the Democrats’ energy levels have bested the Republicans. On
fundraising, turnout at events and participation in primary voting, all
of the enthusiasm was on the left. Sarah Palin has changed that. The
GOP base is enthused for the first time . Her social conservatism and
reformist credentials have played a part for sure but most important
has been her intrinsic star quality. She’s attractive, fun, sassy and
real. Palin has emerged as a heroine of her party, whatever now
happens in this election.
Brought Iraq back from the brink:
Retreat, retreat, retreat was the near unanimous advice of the foreign
policy establishment at the end of 2006. But George W Bush took the lonely decision
to advance. He appointed General David Petraeus to lead a surge of
20,000 extra troops into Iraq and a change of tactics. John McCain had
been recommending this change of approach for two years and stood by
President Bush at the time – even though many predicted
that it would kill his presidential ambitions. Iraq remains a fragile
state but Iraq is no longer the winning issue that Obama had hoped. The
success of the surge and the Democrat nominee’s unwillingness to recant
his opposition to it, have brought his own judgment into question.
A reformist message: There’s still much
in the McCain message that is very familiar Republican fare. The
Arizona Senator opposes abortion, supports gun rights, wants to cut
federal spending and is a national security hawk. But added to this mix
is a belief in man-made global warming, an opposition to torture and a
more positive view of immigration. Sarah Palin also reinforces other
potentially very potent qualities: a track record of taking a stand
against Republican excesses; opposition to pork and unnecessary
spending; shunning of perks; and straight-talking.
Over coming years the Republicans will probably need to go further still:
It must realise that tax and crime aren’t such potent political weapons:
Eleven years into a high taxing Labour government the British voter may
be hungry for lower taxes (and a tougher approach to crime) but these
are not the top issues for American voters. As David Lidington has recorded, former Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman (pictured) has said:
the party should focus on quality of life issues: infrastructure,
energy and education .Family values voters would (as the Virginia
gubernatorial elections showed) vote for a candidate who promised to
fix the transport system so they could get home quicker to their
children over one offering tax cuts."
Obama-Biden win office for four or eight years, however, and team up
with a Democrat-controlled Congress to deliver step increases in
spending the GOP nominee in 2012 or 2016 might find tax a potent weapon
Reach the ‘chattering classes’:
Although the GOP needs to do more to appeal to blue collar workers in
the way described by Ken Mehlman (and more extensively by Ross Douthat
and Reihan Salam in their ‘Grand New Party’ book), David Frum has warned of a growing estrangement with higher income voters. The Times’ Daniel Finkelstein has also written about this.
Without an interest in green and other quality of life issues – as
trailblazed, for example, by David Cameron – the Republicans will
struggle to build a majority coalition.
Make peace with gay Americans: It would
be wrong for Republicans to listen to those who say America is becoming
more socially liberal in every respect. Younger voters are at least as
worried about abortion but a very conservative perspective is no longer
electorally tenable in certain areas. Although Republicans may wish to
defend a traditional interpretation of marriage they would be wise to
be more open to same sex partnerships and the rights that go with them.
The worse thing that could happen for the Republicans is for
them to be defeated in November and blame McCain’s reform agenda for
the defeat. Romney-ism
is not the answer. The future of the Republican Party is the
anti-establishment outlook of Sarah Palin (Alaska), the blue-collar
awareness of Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota) and the fresh thinking of Bobby