The Illusion of "Either-Or" Politics

Sunday, January 30, 2005
this is an image
this is an image
The argument over whether Republicans won in 2004 by appealing to their base, by pumping up turnout especially among evangelical Christians, or by reaching to the middle, where they made gains among women, Catholics, and so on, continues apace. And the political consequences riding on the outcome are generally thought to be large for the future of the party. Although I agree that the way in which Republicans interpret what happened last November is crucial to the party’s future, an embrace of this either-or approach to descripe how the GOP won will only cause confusion and create opportunities for Democrats.
For some reason, commentators, pundits, and other analysts seem to like a world in which what is going on is a battle for the soul of the Republican Party—or for the soul of the Democratic Party. In fact, many party activists themselves like to see things this way, being themselves members of one or another faction seeking the upper hand. They may even aspire to see the intraparty struggle settled in their favor once and for all. Will Democrats be the party of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council or the activist left wing that produced the surge of early enthusiasm for Howard Dean? Will Republicans be the party of the religious right, or will the more moderate types of the John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Rudy Giuliani school carry the day?
But, in fact, this world of binary outcomes is an illusion—for if ever an internal party struggle was settled once and for all, there would be two consequences flowing immediately from the fact. First, the party would become a minority party: A Democratic Party stripped of either its DLC wing or its progressive wing, one having decided to walk out because of the intolerable position of dominance within the party of the other, would have no hope of commanding an electoral majority. Likewise, a GOP consisting only of evangelical Christians or of opinions ranging from, say Senator McCain to Senator Arlen Specter, would be a losing proposition nationally. You need both elements to have a chance of success.
Second, in the event of such a factional victory within a party, the prevailing faction would immediately split in two, probably divided over the question of how to bring the losers, their erstwhile comrades, back into the fold. I mean to suggest by this that political parties in the American context are always internally divided and that it is neither one wing nor the other that determines the outcome; rather, it is the dynamic interaction of the two.
this is an image
Now, as it happens, Democrats have a general interest in painting a picture of the GOP that consists almost entirely of its farthest-right members. The reason for this (in addition to the delusion of the true-believer “blue state” types who have been hyperventilating since the election about the “red peril”) is that it gives Democrats the greatest room to operate both in maintaining their base and in reaching toward the middle. Similarly, Republicans have the same interest in characterizing the Democratic Party as “liberal, liberal, liberal.” Meanwhile, it falls to the more center-leaning faction of each party to try to do what it can to rebut the all-left or all-right characterization—in pursuit not only of influence for its centrist views but also of the support of that median voter whose opinions aren’t captured by either party’s hard-liners.
So, to the victor go the spoils, right? Well, yes, but who won? I would be very surprised if the Bush White House—which, as the record shows, knows a thing or two about politics—somehow managed to miss the business of how parties work as discussed here. Those who are expecting a handover of policymaking to evangelical Christians ought to rethink their expectations. George Bush has a broad, majority coalition to manage. The key political test of the success of his administration will be his ability to keep it intact and broaden it for Republicans going forward. That entails not only saying yes to key constituencies on the right subjects at the right moments—but also saying no to or sidestepping certain demands that jeopardize the overall prospects for the coalition.
Anyone in Bush’s position can turn to the right or, alternatively, hew to the center. The real challenge is crafting a political appeal and a policy menu that does both at the same time. Bush won in 2004 with a campaign that did just that. It seems highly unlikely that the “architect”—as Bush dubbed Karl Rove in thanking him November 3—or Bush himself will misinterpret the results of his achievement so as to minimize the extent of the contribution of either the center or the right to the victory.