2012: The Republican party’s Gotham election?
The Fix is something of a nerd. (This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog for more than a day or two.) As such, we dig sci-fi (“Battlestar Galactica” rules!), fantasy novels (“Wheel of Time” series anyone?) and, yes, superheroes.
To that last point, we always been captivated by the political implications of an argument made in the 2005 movie “Batman Begins” by Ra’s al Ghul — played by Liam Neeson — that the only way that the city of Gotham could be returned to its former greatness was for it first to be destroyed.
“Gotham’s time has come,” al Ghul tells our hero Bruce Wayne. “Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.”
That idea — that the only way to truly rebuild something is for it first bottom out — is one that some within the Republican party have begun to toy with privately as the divisions between its tea party wing and the more establishment/moderate side of the party become more and more apparent.
As we wrote in our Monday Fix column for the newspaper:
“I’d personally enjoy all the ‘we can’t nominate another Republican In Name Only’ crowd getting a stomping by an incumbent with an 8.5 unemployment rate,” said one senior party strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly, warning of nominating a strictly conservative candidate like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
It’s happened before. In 1964, conservatives got their way when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater beat out New York Gov. — and proud moderate — Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination. Goldwater’s conservatism didn’t sit well with the country at large and Johnson won with 61 percent of the vote, the largest popular vote percentage in modern history.
Four years later, Republicans — showing their lesson learned — nominated establishment favorite and political pragmatist Richard Nixon. (Nixon had been defeated by John Kennedy in 1960 and declined to run in 1964.) Nixon ended eight years of Democratic control of the White House when he beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election.
Nixon’s (re) rise isn’t the only example of a party looking itself in the eye after a major defeat and re- branding itself to more effectively fit what the electorate wants.
Look at Democrats in 1992. After 12 years out of the White House — two Ronald Reagan terms and a single term of George H.W. Bush — the party nominated Bill Clinton. The former Arkansas governor preached a centrist approach to governance, breaking with liberal orthodoxy in order to convince unaffiliated voters that the Democratic party was the right place for them to call home. (Sidebar: If you have not watched the PBS “American Experience” on Clinton’s rise and time in the White House, go home and DVR it asap. Terrific stuff.)
Ditto 2008 for Democrats. After eight years of George W. Bush in the White House, the country was clearly ready for something new. And, while then Sen. Barack Obama clearly ran against the Bush White House, he also distanced himself from the partisanship and rancor that, he argued, had typified the time Clinton spent in the White House too. (That line of argument was seen as particularly salient given that Obama was running against Clinton’s wife for the 2008 Democratic nomination.)
Following the 2008 election — in which Obama won the White House in convincing fashion and Democrats gained ground in the House and Senate — it appeared as though Republicans were headed for that same sort of moment of reckoning.
But then the party regained its mojo thanks in large part two legislative items pushed by President Obama: the economic stimulus package and, most importantly, health care.
A Republican party that was clearly adrift following the 2008 debacle suddenly found its voice — in opposition to the direct the President wanted to take the country. That approach led to the gains for Republicans in the House and Senate in 2010.
But, it also had the effect of papering-over some of the longer term problems the party has — particularly in its messaging to Hispanic voters. Obama won the Hispanic vote with 67 percent in 2008 and the GOP has, if anything, taken an even more hardline position on what to do with the 11 million people here illegally since then.
Major figures within the Republican party are aware of the political problem presented by the possibility of losing the nation’s largest minority group by huge margins.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush warned the candidates in the runup to the Sunshine State primary to tone down their rhetoric on immigration. And Arizona Sen. John McCain has said publicly that currently Republican states like Texas could be up for grabs in the future if the GOP doesn’t find a way out of its immigration box.
If Romney winds up as the nominee — and the odds are with him — it’s hard to see 2012 as the GOP’s Gotham moment. Most polling suggests Romney is competitive with Obama in most swing states and whether or not he wins the White House will likely keep it close enough not to hurt downballot Republicans badly.
The larger question is how long Republicans can live with a deep divide within their own party. The 2010 election put a Band-aid over the wound but the 2012 primary — at least so far — has ripped it off again. A party divided against itself cannot stand — or at least not stand strong for very long.