The good news for the Republican party is that it can't get much worse; the bad news is that it's pretty bad already. As Rod Dreher points out, a new Washington Post poll finds that just one in five Americans are prepared to identify themselves as Republicans. That's some achievement in a two-party system. With apologies to Evelyn Waugh, you see, we may class political parties into four grades: Leading Party, First-Rate Party, Good Party and Party. Frankly, Party is pretty bad.
Now this may be a rogue poll and the GOP may still do well in next month's gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Equally, the conservative base may still, pace Nate Silver, be more motivated than the disaffected, moderate centre, to turn-out at next year's mid-terms. But, to put it mildly, if you were plotting a path back to power you wouldn't begin it with the lowest party ID in a generation. At the moment - and, as always, things may change - Republican victories over the next 12 months may prove to be false friends, persuading the GOP that, actually, it doesn't need to change to win back real power in Washington.
The key point is that while liberal - or, if you prefer, leftist - Democrats are a minority within their party but conservative Republicans constitute two-thirds of the GOP's base. In other words, the Republican party is held hostage by its core support to a much greater extent than is the Democratic party. That in turn means that it is, for now at least, much easier for the Democrats to cast a wider net and appeal to the centre where, most of the times, elections are won. (2004 was, in some ways, an exception but one governed by a particularly unusual, post-9/11 set of circumstances that, one hopes, will not apply again.)
The distance between the GOP base and the rest of the American electorate is a considerable problem; bridging it will require considerable degrees of imagination and perspiration. Consider, for instance, this analyss by the (yes, Democratic) pollsters at Democracy Corps:
First and foremost, these conservative Republican voters believe Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives. They view this effort in sweeping terms, and cast a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.
This concern combines with a profound sense of collective identity. In our conversations, it was striking how these voters constantly characterized themselves as part of a group of individuals who share a set of beliefs, a unique knowledge, and a commitment of opposition to Obama that sets them apart from the majority of the country. They readily identify themselves as a minority in this country – a minority whose values are mocked and attacked by a liberal media and class of elites. They also believe they possess a level of knowledge and understanding when it comes to politics and current events, one gained from a rejection of the mainstream media and an embrace of conservative media and pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, which sets them apart even more. Further, they believe this position leaves them with a responsibility to spread the word, to educate those who do not share their insights, and to take back the country that they love. Their faith in this country and its ideals leave them confident that their numbers will grow, and that they will ultimately defeat Barack Obama and the shadowy forces driving his hidden agenda...
And yet remarkably, these voters had virtually nothing positive to say about the Republican Party. They see their own party as weak, old, and out of touch. They feel it has lost sight of conservative values and conservative voters and is in desperate need of new leadership. They identified a clear disconnect between ‘the people’ and ‘the politicians,’ which poses a growing threat to the party’s ability to challenge Democratic control in Washington...
Looking at the current political debate, it was evident in our focus group discussions that the divide between conservative Republicans and even the most conservative-leaning independents remains very, very wide. Independents like those in our suburban Cleveland groups harbor doubts about Obama’s health care reform but are desperate to see some version of health care reform pass this year; the conservative Republicans view any health care reform as a victory for Obama and are militantly opposed. Asked about the issues of greatest importance to them in choosing a candidate for Congress, health care ranked sixth among the Republicans, below issues such as tax cuts, immigration, and a candidate’s personal values and faith; but for the independents, health care was number one. These, then, are parties dancing to very different tunes. The crossover potential for either seems limited. That's less of a problem for Democrats than it is for Republicans. The latter need the centre; the former don't need the conservative base.
It is, then, despite the doubts about Obama and the general direction of the country, probable that the GOP has a long, long way to go yet and that far form taking advantage of the possibilities for reflection afforded by opposition, the GOP has actually squandered the first nine months of the Obama ascendancy. This may not, of course, come as a great surprise. Rump parties not only squander opportunities, they fail to even appreciate them in the first place.