The Republican Party’s rush to the right fringe since President Obama’s inauguration, and especially in this primary season, is a calculated but high-risk strategy. (More)
I first encountered the emerging theory of the Republican Party’s hard right turn at The Weekly Standard in Lawrence Lindsey’s mathematically titled Safe + Moderate ≠ Electable:
The conventional wisdom among the chattering class about the Republican field is that voters face a choice between “electability” and “ideology.” But a careful look at elections since the end of World War II suggests that is not the case. What most pundits think of as “electable,” a safe candidate attractive to moderate voters, has historically been highly unlikely to unseat an incumbent president. In the five elections since World War II in which the party out of power has picked a “safe” candidate to take on a sitting president, the result was defeat for the supposedly safe, electable challenger.
To understand why this is not always the case, consider the math of an election as composed of two parts: the “normal” or “expected” result and the variability or chance part around that normal result. The term used in markets to denote this chance or variable part is “beta.” A high-beta stock – or a high-beta candidate – might do a lot better or a lot worse than what would normally be expected, whereas a low-beta candidate (or stock) is pretty much going to do as expected, or, in the case of a stock, as the rest of the market does.
Lindsey’s basic argument is that incumbency itself offers so many advantages that a “safe” challenger like Mitt Romney offers the choice between losing by a little or losing by a little more. Assuming no other related outcomes – for example, the candidate’s effect on down-ballot races – that’s not much of a choice. But while a “risky” challenger like Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich may lose by a far wider margin, their all-or-nothing rhetoric might also eke out a victory.
Yesterday the New Yorker‘s Jonathan Chait offered a related concept in 2012 or Never:
The Republican Party is in the grips of many fever dreams. But this is not one of them. To be sure, the apocalyptic ideological analysis – that “freedom” is incompatible with Clinton-era tax rates and Massachusetts-style health care – is pure crazy. But the panicked strategic analysis, and the sense of urgency it gives rise to, is actually quite sound. The modern GOP – the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes – is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests. And this impending doom has colored the party’s frantic, fearful response to the Obama presidency.
Chait chronicles the seemingly foolish risks taken by Republicans since President Obama took office, from their hyperbole-laden battle against the Affordable Care Act, to rejecting any hint of compromise on the debt ceiling, to draconian immigration and abortion bills, to their attempts to disenfranchise the poor, women, persons of color, and younger voters. The GOP House budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) offered a combination of tax cuts for the wealthy, spending cuts for those in need, and privatizing Medicare … policies that, Chait argues, Republicans knew or should have known were unpopular and certainly knew would never be enacted.
The way to make sense of that foolhardiness is that the party has decided to bet everything on its one “last chance.” Not the last chance for the Republican Party to win power – there will be many of those, and over time it will surely learn to compete for nonwhite voters – but its last chance to exercise power in its current form, as a party of anti-government fundamentalism powered by sublimated white Christian identity politics. (And the last chance to stop the policy steamroller of the new Democratic majority.)
If Chait’s argument is valid, the Republican strategy of the past four years – and for 2012 – is a desperate battle for survival, not of a political party but of an idea: a nation governed by and for the wealthy, sustained by fomenting white Christian male resentment of Others. Chait concludes:
The deepest effect of Obama’s election upon the Republicans’ psyche has been to make them truly fear, for the first time since before Ronald Reagan, that the future is against them.
The future is indeed against Republicans, and they will fight as never before to prevent it. We progressive Democratic activists must work as never before to make that future happen.