Could the party pivot from the president? I spoke this week to Clarke Reed of Mississippi, one of the great architects of resurgent Republicanism in the South. When he started out, in the 1950s, there were no Republicans in his state. The solid south was solidly Democratic, and Sen. James O. Eastland was thumping the breast pocket of his suit, vowing that civil rights legislation would never leave it. "We’re going to build a two-party system in the south," Mr. Reed said. He helped create "the illusion of Southern power" as a friend put it, with the creation of the Southern Republican Chairman’s Association. "If you build it they will come." They did.
There are always "lots of excuses," Mr. Reed said of the special-election loss. Poor candidate, local factors. "Having said all that," he continued, "let’s just face it: It’s not a good time." He meant to be a Republican. "They brought Cheney in, and that was a mistake." He cited "a disenchantment with the generic Republican label, which we always thought was the Good Housekeeping seal."
What’s behind it? "American people just won’t take a long war. Just – name me a war, even in a pro-military state like this. It’s overall disappointment. It’s national. No leadership, adrift. Things haven’t worked." The future lies in rebuilding locally, not being "distracted" by Washington.
Is the Republican solid South over?
"Yeah. Oh yeah." He said, "I eat lunch every day at Buck’s Cafe. Obama’s picture is all over the wall."
How to come back? "The basic old conservative principles haven’t changed. We got distracted by Washington, we got distracted from having good county organizations."
Should the party attempt to break with Mr. Bush? Mr. Reed said he supports the president. And then he said, simply, "We’re past that."
We’re past that time.
Mr. Reed said he was "short-term pessimistic, long-term optimistic." He has seen a lot of history. "After Goldwater in ’64 we said, ‘Let’s get practical.’ So we got ol’ Dick. We got through Watergate. Been through a lot. We’ve had success a long time."
Throughout the interview this was a Reed refrain: "We got through that." We got through Watergate and Vietnam and changes large and small.
He was holding high the flag, but his refrain implicitly compared the current moment to disaster.
What happens to the Republicans in 2008 will likely be dictated by what didn’t happen in 2005, and ’06, and ’07. The moment when the party could have broken, on principle, with the administration – over the thinking behind and the carrying out of the war, over immigration, spending and the size of government – has passed. What two years ago would have been honorable and wise will now look craven. They’re stuck.
Mr. Bush has squandered the hard-built paternity of 40 years. But so has the party, and so have its leaders. If they had pushed away for serious reasons, they could have separated the party’s fortunes from the president’s. This would have left a painfully broken party, but they wouldn’t be left with a ruined "brand," as they all say, speaking the language of marketing. And they speak that language because they are marketers, not thinkers. Not serious about policy. Not serious about ideas. And not serious about leadership, only followership.
This is and will be the great challenge for John McCain: The Democratic argument, now being market tested by Obama Inc., that a McCain victory will yield nothing more or less than George Bush’s third term.
That is going to be powerful, and it is going to get out the vote. And not for Republicans.
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