Better hurry with big tent

Over my life in politics I’ve seen both political parties declared irrelevant, incompetent and — for all intents and purposes — dead on more than one occasion. Yet they both survive, eventually finding a voice and a leader to catch the swinging pendulum of American politics, and rise to power again. So I think reports of the death of the Republican Party are premature.

There is, however, a clear message in Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) deciding to walk across the aisle from his political home of over three decades and take a seat among Democrats in the U.S. Senate. The Republican Party has lost the plot. They just don’t get how much the world has changed. The last Republican revolution that brought the party to power in the Congress and fueled eight years of a George W. Bush presidency came to define a party orthodoxy that can no longer muster widespread support.

Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove after him, devised a sophisticated strategy that built on a religious-conservative base and attracted moderates, independents and conservative Democrats frustrated with the angst of the Clinton years. Throughout the two terms of the Bush administration, that moderate margin slowly turned against the rhetoric that kept the Republican base enthusiastic. Republican leadership chose to ignore those changing attitudes, clinging to social-issue litmus tests and mindless repetition of rhetoric from the closing days of the last century.

As President Obama’s approval numbers continue to stay strong through what has seemed more like the first hundred crises than the first hundred days, most Republican leaders have continued a one-note, tone-deaf chorus of criticism. It goes far beyond Rush Limbaugh’s audience-rating-building rants or Dick Morris’s predictions that the president is doomed to failure. Those messages may reinforce the base, but they fall on deaf ears among the moderate middle.

More damaging to the party is the directionless opposition from Republican congressional leadership. It has sent a clear message to moderate America that the GOP is completely out of touch. While voters continue to be concerned about the future and have some misgivings about the specifics of Obama’s policies, they consistently give the President high marks for taking on a huge agenda of domestic and foreign policy problems. The president seems vital, optimistic, open and on top of things. The Republican leadership appears to be constant critics with no good alternatives to offer.

This comparison is taking a toll on the GOP. According to a Democracy Corps poll released this week, Democrats now have an eight-point advantage over Republicans on partisan identification. Only 18 percent of the electorate now consider themselves “strong Republicans” — a dangerously low number. The Republican “brand” is hovering in General Motors and AIG territory these days. The party has a 31 percent favorable to 46 percent unfavorable rating — a net negative of 15 points.

That is hardly the foundation on which to build a Republican resurgence. Stan Greenburg is unabashedly partisan, and his Democracy Corps poll reports always cite the good news for Democrats. Still, he is a professional and one of the best in the business. His 2010 vote test in congressional races shows Democrats with a 10-point advantage in a question that used actual names, not just a generic identification. Worse news for Republicans are his results from the 40 most vulnerable congressional districts. President Obama is trusted to do a better job than Republicans by 16 points on the economy, 24 points on healthcare and 27 points on energy policy. Those numbers don’t necessarily reflect vulnerable-district voters’ love of Obama’s policies, but that they believe he actually has some, while Republicans do not.

In this context, Sen. Specter’s bolt across the aisle becomes more than an act of political self-preservation. Specter is part of a historic tradition of moderate Republicanism that once dominated the Northeast. Dubbed “Rockefeller Republicans” in the early ’60s, these independent thinkers have slowly been forced out of the party over the last two decades. As Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), one of the last moderates standing, wrote this week, she often feels like a cast member of “Survivor” — “you are presented with multiple challenges, and you often get the distinct feeling you are no longer welcome in the tribe.”

Arlen Specter has always been a survivor. The message of his departure is that the Republican Party has to enlarge what is now a tiny tent to make room for those who share the party’s historic moderate principles but don’t pass muster with the Southern, talk-show base now in control. If not, others will follow Specter to the exit.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com