What Killed the GOP?

“Far Right Soley (sic) Responsible for Democratic Gains.” That’s the title of a hastily written press release I received last Wednesday from the Republican Main Street Partnership. In fact, it had been posted on RMSP’s website Tuesday before midnight.

“For the last two years,” wrote RMSP executive director Sarah Chamberlain, “centrist GOPers have warned the leadership of our party of the consequences of pushing a legislative agenda cow-towing to the far right in our party.” (For the record, I also oppose “cow-towing,” and all other forms of bovine abuse.)

In the release, Chamberlain argues that if conservatives had only backed increases to the minimum wage and federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, Republicans would still have their majorities.

Selling Out Didn’t Save Them

My question for her is this: If the far right is “soley (sic) responsible” for Republican defeat, why did so many House GOP moderates get wiped out last week? You know, all of those guys who did vote for embryonic stem-cell funding and support minimum wage hikes? Like Charlie Bass, John Sweeney, Jim Leach, Jeb Bradley, Nancy Johnson, Sue Kelly and Clay Shaw? They all lost, as did a few others. (Just to be fair, we won’t bring up Mark Foley.)

In fact, 10 of the 50 Republicans who voted to fund embryonic research lost their elections this year. (Two others are retiring.) Embryonic destruction, it turns out, isn’t an ace-in-the-hole for moderate Republicans after all.

The same can be said of two of the six Republican losers in the Senate—Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.)—who backed Teddy Kennedy’s minimum wage bill when it came up in the Senate. Apparently, the voters in Ohio and Rhode Island had something else in mind besides “min wage rage” when they sacked these two.

Chamberlain concludes, “What the extreme right of our party has worked to destroy—centrist Republicans will now step in and rebuild.” But how can they step in and rebuild when most of them are busy dusting off their resumes and looking for jobs on K Street?

There are no signs that this election—an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party—reflects America abandoning conservative principles. DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D.-Ill.) and the Democrats were very clever about House races. They made sure there were very few races where a clear ideological clash took place. In Indiana and North Carolina, they ran moderate Democrats against conservative Republicans. In the Northeast, they ran liberals against Republican moderates. Most of the races centered around personal scandals and Republican candidates’ ties to the unpopular President Bush.


In the few genuine ideological battles, conservative Republicans like Pete Roskam (Ill.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), and Vern Buchanan (Fla.) came out on top. At worst, the results for conservatism were mixed. Not counting the clear scandal-driven losses, only four or five conservative incumbents lost their races.

But there is one thing in Chamberlain’s press release that she got right about why Republicans lost. They paid the price for failing to adopt meaningful ethics and lobbying reforms that would change the way Washington works. They should have listened to Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) and the conservative Republican Study Committee, which wanted to end the process known as earmarking. They should have listened to Rep. Walter Jones (R.-N.C.), a conservative’s conservative, who felt so strongly about the ethics issue that he voted against the now-soon-to-be-former GOP leadership’s mild reform proposal.

The corruption in Congress made a difference in this election. Eight Republican House seats and at least one Senate seat—that of Sen. Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.)—were lost directly because of some scandal or other, whether it be bribe-taking and alleged influence-peddling, wife-beating, or mistress-choking. And the stench of scandal may have contributed in small part to other losses as well by stopping the Republican resurgence dead in its tracks in early October.

Conservative voters did not make Republicans a majority in 1994 so that they could enrich themselves and perpetuate big government, as they have. They deserved a good slap for what they were doing, and that they got.

The Cost of Iraq

But this election represented most of all an expression of anger at an incompetent White House that has us stuck endlessly in Iraq. The Bush Administration’s Iraq occupation was like a huge soot-spewing smokestack, polluting this year’s campaign environment. Iraq made a difference in every single race. It dragged down every single Republican on the ballot in every single state.

It also made Bush into a useless political leader. In 2002 and 2004, President Bush had been an asset, stumping for Republican candidates in marginal districts and tough Senate races, which Republicans won. Conservatives were very excited to vote, and many independents—particularly white Catholics who have drifted away from their ancestral Democratic party—did not hesitate to pull the lever for Republicans either.

But this year, President Bush was radioactive. Stand near him for a few minutes, and your hair falls out, and then you die. Wherever he campaigned, Republican candidates lost (OK, one exception in Nebraska).

The adjective “stay-the-course” became Democrats’ derogatory epithet for their Republican opponents, who were saddled with Bush’s Iraq policy. And it worked really, really well. The talking-point Republicans were given as a response—that “Iraq is a central front in the War on Terror”—was terribly unconvincing and didn’t answer average voters’ real concerns about the occupation.

It wasn’t just the left-wing nuts at Daily Kos who had problems with the war in Iraq this time, it was ordinary people. Americans don’t mind going to war when it is necessary, but they hate wars that drag on, wars we don’t win, and wars that turn out not to have been necessary after all. An intelligence error can certainly be forgiven with regard to weapons of mass destruction, but the initial chaos, and now the lack of progress in Iraq, are all signs that people really didn’t think this one through very well before we went in.

With the election over, conservatives should drop the Happy Warrior spiel and start asking, humbly and honestly, whether President Bush’s nation-building experiment in Iraq is worthwhile or in line with Americans’ true wishes. We should especially ask whether this is ever worth repeating again, because opportunities will arise someday.