With all but one of the House races now resolved, Republicans have picked up at least 63 seats, the most in a midterm election since 1938. So, it might be fun on this Thanksgiving Day to recall how, just 18 months ago, Time's Michael Grunwald was arguing in a big cover story that demography and its "extremely conservative" philosophy meant the Republican Party could be on the verge of extinction.
Back in May 2009, Newsbusters Brent Baker picked up on Grunwald's piece for the ridiculous way he painted the GOP as extremist:
They are extremely conservative ideas tarred by association with the extremely unpopular George W. Bush, who helped downsize the party to its extremely conservative base.
But re-reading the piece today, it's even more striking how Grunwald's "analysis" was based on liberal wishful thinking that small government conservative policies were like political arsenic, and how Republicans had to drop tax cuts and cultural conservatism if they ever hoped to come back from the wilderness.
In other words, move left. But the GOP instead moved right, and was rewarded by voters. Which is why conservatives should probably not take strategic advice from their ideological adversaries in the media.
Here's a lengthy excerpt; you can read the entire piece online here.
These days, Republicans have the desperate aura of an endangered species. They lost Congress, then the White House; more recently, they lost a slam-dunk House election in a conservative New York district, then Senator Arlen Specter. Polls suggest that only one-fourth of the electorate considers itself Republican, that independents are trending Democratic and that as few as five states have solid Republican pluralities. And the electorate is getting less white, less rural, less Christian — in short, less demographically Republican. GOP officials who completely controlled Washington three years ago are vowing to "regain our status as a national party" and creating woe-is-us groups to resuscitate their brand, while Democrats are publishing books like The Strange Death of Republican America and 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. John McCain's campaign manager recently described his party as basically extinct on the West Coast, nearly extinct in the Northeast and endangered in the Mountain West and Southwest.
So are the Republicans going extinct? And can the death march be stopped?...
The party's ideas — about economic issues, social issues and just about everything else — are not popular ideas. They are extremely conservative ideas tarred by association with the extremely unpopular George W. Bush, who helped downsize the party to its extremely conservative base. A hard-right agenda of slashing taxes for the investor class, protecting marriage from gays, blocking universal health insurance and extolling the glories of waterboarding produces terrific ratings for Rush Limbaugh, but it's not a majority agenda. The party's new, Hooverish focus on austerity on the brink of another depression does not seem to fit the national mood, and it's shamelessly hypocritical, given the party's recent history of massive deficit spending on pork, war and prescription drugs in good times, not to mention its continuing support for deficit-exploding tax cuts in bad times.
As the party has shrunk to its base, it has catered even more to its base's biases, insisting that the New Deal made the Depression worse, carbon emissions are fine for the environment and tax cuts actually boost revenues — even though the vast majority of historians, scientists and economists disagree. The RNC is about to vote on a kindergartenish resolution to change the name of its opponent to the Democrat Socialist Party. This plays well with hard-core culture warriors and tea-party activists convinced that a dictator-President is plotting to seize their guns, choose their doctors and put ACORN in charge of the Census, but it ultimately produces even more shrinkage, which gives the base even more influence — and the death spiral continues. "We're excluding the young, minorities, environmentalists, pro-choice — the list goes on," says Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of two moderate Republicans left in the Senate after Specter's switch. "Ideological purity is not the ticket to the promised land."
Hispanics, Asians and blacks are on track to be the majority in three decades; metropolitan voters and young voters who skew Democratic are also on the rise. This is why [GOP lobbyist Ed] Rogers recently decided to quit being a talking head: "I had a meeting with myself, and I said, Do we really need more white lobbyists with gray hair on TV?" But it's not clear that more diverse spokesmen or better tweets can woo a new generation to the GOP; support for gay rights is soaring, and polls show that voters prefer Democratic approaches to health care, education and the economy. "The outlook for Republicans is even worse than people think," says Ruy Teixeira, author of The Emerging Democratic Majority. "Their biggest problem is that they really believe what they believe."
So Republicans need to decide what Republicans need to believe. What does their three-legged stool of strong defense, traditional values and economic conservatism mean today? Does strong defense mean unqualified support for torture, outdated weapons systems and pre-emptive wars? Do traditional values mean no room in the tent for pro-choicers like Specter and Snowe? Even Joe the Plumber — who opposes abortion and homosexuality and considers America a "Christian nation" — wants the party to drop its "holier than thou" attitude on divisive social issues.
The most urgent question is the meaning of economic conservatism. Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a conservative who keeps a bust of Reagan on his desk, surprised me by declaring that the Reagan era is over. "Marginal tax rates are the lowest they've been in generations, and all we can talk about is tax cuts," he said. "The people's desires have changed, but we're still stuck in our old issue set." Snowe recalls that when she proposed fiscally conservative "triggers" to limit Bush's tax cuts in case of deficits, she was attacked by fellow Republicans. "I don't know when willy-nilly tax cuts became the essence of who we are," she says. "To the average American who's struggling, we're in some other stratosphere. We're the party of Big Business and Big Oil and the rich." In the Bush era, the party routinely sided with corporate lobbyists — promoting tax breaks, subsidies and earmarks for well-wired industries — against ordinary taxpayers as well as basic principles of fiscal restraint. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint's Republican alternative to the stimulus included tax cuts skewed toward the wealthy; at this point, the GOP's reflexes are almost involuntary.
The problem for Republicans, as the RNC's Steele memorably put it in a TV appearance, is that there's "absolutely no reason, none, to trust our word or our actions." Republicans, after all, proclaimed that President Clinton's tax hikes would destroy the economy, that GOP rule would mean smaller government, that Bush's tax cuts would usher in a new era of prosperity; now the House minority leader says it's "comical" to think carbon dioxide could be harmful, and Steele says the earth is cooling.
Polls show that most Republicans who haven't jumped ship want the party to move even further right; it takes vision to imagine a presidential candidate with national appeal emerging from a GOP primary in 2012. DeMint, the South Carolina Senator, greeted Specter's departure with the astonishing observation that he'd rather have 30 Republican colleagues who believe in conservatism than 60 who don't. "I don't want us to have power until we have principles," DeMint told Time after firing up that tea-party crowd in Columbia. Voters certainly soured on unprincipled Republicans. But it's not clear they'd like principled Republicans better.