Overblown GOP apocalypse

Rumors of the Republican Party’s imminent meltdown in 2008 are rampant. Websites and blogs bristle with headlines like “They’re screwed,” “Licking their wounds,” “Republicans really are the stupid party” and “What are Republicans thinking?” And those are from the friendly conservative sources. Some wags say the party is hopelessly divided over issues ranging from abortion and Iraq to gas prices and immigration. Other observers focus on the dissident voices of GOP moderates. Some pundits point their fingers at a president who’s too distracted by war and low approval ratings to provide much party leadership. And there’s a persistent sense on the part of many that the best potential nominees for president — namely Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich — aren’t even in the mix.

Is it really an apocalypse for the GOP? Or is a weird coalition of the liberal mainstream media conjoined with the hard right making the Republican predicament out to be much worse than it really is? In my view, the case for a crisis is way overblown. While there is some truth to each of the issues raised — there are divisions, factional shifts, weak leadership and so forth — a case could be made that the Democrats suffer from most of the same maladies. So while the Republicans may be confronting challenges, they aren’t necessarily at a competitive disadvantage for 2008.

One particular weakness of the case against the Republicans is that it’s too much about inside-the-Beltway politics. Yes, Republicans on Capitol Hill aren’t functioning as a well-oiled machine. We’re at a competitive disadvantage there. But Capitol Hill is hardly all of America. At the state level, you’ll find Republican Party operations that are peak performers. Consider Florida, where the newly elected Republican governor is already so popular that Floridians may forget about Jeb Bush. And the state legislature is dominated by the GOP. Republicans hold top local offices across the state. At the other end of the country, in California, you see a Republican Party that’s bouncing back under the leadership of a suddenly stronger and more popular governor.

The focus on issue divisions is another attack on the party that misses its mark. The Republicans have always had the kinds of divisions over issues that suddenly seem to be so telling to party critics. The doomsayers who make such a big deal out of Rudy Giuliani’s moderate positions on social issues like abortion and guns forget that moderates like Gerald Ford or Nelson Rockefeller have always been able to attract support from the same 35 percent who now support the latest squish to seek the presidency. This is nothing new or different. And besides, I’m convinced that these issue differences don’t matter much once the nomination is decided. After we have a nominee, the ranks start to close.

In the end, it’s not conservative issues or ideology that defines the Republican coalition today. Instead, the framework around which the party is built is principally demographic, focused on the South, select suburbs, rural areas and traditional families (i.e., households with a daddy, mommy and kids). These building blocks of the party are not under the same siege that afflicts conservatism. So even though issues like Iraq and immigration are roiling the waters of Long Island or Chicago’s Lakefront, they’re not cracking the bedrock of GOP support in climes like Atlanta’s northern suburbs or rural Iowa’s farm communities. GOP fortunes were more threatened in the Reagan years, when GOP support in the rural Midwest was eroded by rural opposition to the Gipper’s farm policies. Southern support of the GOP was under greater duress when the first Bush raised taxes than under the current Bush.

Whoever wins the Republican nomination will find a much stronger and more resilient party base than most party critics now surmise.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.