If you listen carefully, you can hear it gathering momentum, foam, vitriol, recrimination and self-serving hypocrisy. It’s the conservative wave roaring towards the beach, cresting and ready to crash. The 2012 election will be the beginning of the end for the far-right conservatives and, like the liberals who didn’t see their wave tumble in 1984, will likely lead to an even uglier aftermath. Republicans are angry now: Imagine what will happen if they lose another presidential election this year (and they will), especially if they’re able to hold on to the House and take back the Senate. So close, yet so far.
The conservative Republican era that began in 1980 and tilted the country to the right had a good run if you supported the cause, but it was never able to achieve its stated goals of severely scaling back government, ending the New Deal and Great Society programs, overturning Roe v. Wade, and ending the progressive tax structure (though they’ve come pretty close with this one). They built up the military and got a Democratic president to end welfare, passed a too-expensive Medicare prescription plan and raised taxes enough to begin to pay off the deficit, though that cost George H. W. Bush his reelection.
The era lasted because Ronald Reagan and both Bushes were able to tame the party’s conflicting passions. Reagan galvanized the economic old guard GOP while paying lip service to the religious conservatives led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Reagan was never a religious person but he talked the talk well enough to keep the support of Christian conservatives, and really, where else were they going to go? That he was able to raise taxes, reform Social Security and work with liberal Democrats speaks to his political skills. The Bushes had a mixed record with the party’s disparate groups. George H.W. inherited Reagan’s mantle, but he was considered suspect on abortion. W. was more conservative, but still did not fight all that hard for the religious agenda.
Of course, the damage that all three presidents did with their hostility to government, marginalization of gays and women, and their Supreme Court choices will endure for many years.
The more recent history of the movement shows most conclusively that it is indeed on its wheezing last breath. The public still sees the Republican Party as the architect of the economic disaster of 2008, and as the economy improves President Obama will get the lion’s share of the rewards. More people support marriage equality than oppose it and the recent flap over contraception shows that the GOP is out of touch with the way most Americans, especially women, view both the birth control and religious issues.
That brings us to why this is the beginning of the end.
The far right wing of the Republican Party is driving the party’s agenda and there’s not one candidate who’s shown they can corral the competing factions. Conservative reaction to Mitt Romney ranges from suspect to hostile and none of the other candidates can claim the right’s support. Yet. That might change as Rick Santorum showed in winning three non-binding primaries last week.
If anything, the nomination battle has proven that the movement has splintered along economic, social and religious lines. Many of the proposals we’ve heard are meant to appeal to the far fringe Tea Party wing of the party (Ron Paul) or to the religious conservatives (Santorum and Gingrich). Romney’s attempts to appeal to the center while throwing the right some scraps on abortion and taxes have so far fallen short of gaining wide acceptance.
None of the candidates would take the deal that offered $10 in budget cuts for $1 in tax increases. Some in the party still question President Obama’s citizenship and religion, and the candidates accuse him of the most outlandish things: anti-religion, creating a communist state, forsaking Israel, and wanting Iran to get a nuclear weapon.
It’s an extreme agenda to say the least, and it will lead to the GOP’s crash. History shows that when you lose the middle of your constituency, you lose your mandate to govern. The Republican Party is on that path.
My sense is that this will all be exposed during the general election campaign and, combined with an improving economy, will result in Obama’s reelection. The 2010 Congressional elections resulted in redistricting that solidified the Republican’s majorities in the House, though Tea Party seats are certainly up for grabs in many districts, and the Democrats have to defend too many Senate seats to count on continued control of that chamber. Conservatives will still hold sway on many issues, but the wave is over. The United States won’t become more liberal, but it will become less conservative and less extreme. Most Republicans probably don’t see this trend coming, and it’s already too late to stop it.