The Democrats may be falling in the polls and President Barack Obama is certainly unpopular but the Republicans have no reason to take their newfound success for granted. On the contrary. The party has now to stop boasting and define its vision of twenty-first century conservatism lest it risk being thrown into the opposition again in 2012.
Two years after the end of neoconservatism and the defeat of “maverick” John McCain, the Republican Party remains without direction and without leadership. The most visible and most vocal of political figures on the right, Sarah Palin, may have been embraced in part by the Tea Party movement but the conservative base at large hardly considers her a viable candidate for the presidency.
Republicans have a tough legacy to reckon with. Opposition to Obama’s favoring of “big government” and his administration’s war on capitalism are ample cause for consternation with the political right yet it were the Republicans who initiated the spending frenzy under President George W. Bush. They have still to decide whether to capitalize on the more libertarian sentiments currently shaping the popular right as represented by the Tea Parties and Glenn Beck or to stick to the ideas that used to bear fruit.
Solid attempts at redefining American conservatism have been made. The call for constitutional conservatism was cheered by a series of Republican stalwarts last February; Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul of Kentucky are winning Senate nominations; Congressmen like Ron Paul and Paul Ryan continue to crusade for the free market. But the party on the whole fears that it may alienate part of its traditional base when it moves toward a more libertarian direction.
Both major parties in the United States are broad and inclusive by necessity. Whereas, in European terms, Democrats can be anything from socialists to centrists, the Republican Party has moderates, business conservatives or Rockefeller Republicans, libertarians and neoconservatives along with the Christian Right and the sort of intolerant, gun toting blowhards personified in the likes of Rush Limbaugh. Mainstream Republicanism in recent years has been fueled by religious sentiments, nostalgia, “family values” and promises of security and strong defense. Today, the small-government philosophy of the party is what ties the aforementioned groups together — except that the alliance of evangelicals and neoconservatives which twice made Bush president in recent years has little to show for in this regard.
A fierce apprehension of anything the Democrats do is all that appears to unite the right. So, according to The Economist, Republicans are reducing themselves into exactly what the Democrats say they are — the Party of No. They may well lambast Obama for expanding the deficit, notes the newspaper; “it is less impressive when they are unable to suggest alternatives.”
Out of power, a party can get away with such negative ambiguity; the business of an opposition is to oppose. The real problem for the political right may well come if it wins in November. Just as the party found after it seized Congress in 1994, voters expect solutions, not just rage.
The paper fears that electoral success in November may lead Republicans to think that they lost the White House because John McCain was not conservative enough. “That logic is more likely to lead to Palin-Huckabee in 2012 than, say, Petraeus-Daniels.” The Economist reminds Americans that British Conservatives made the same mistake when New Labour cast them out of power in 1997. “Only with the accession of the centrist David Cameron in 2005 did the party begin to recover as he set about changing its rhetoric.”