While Barack Obama has spent the last couple of months figuring out how to save the country and its economy from GOP-inflicted disasters, the candidates to head the Republican National Committee have been debating abortion. Splitting hairs does not begin to describe the exquisite dissection of each candidate's stance as, to anyone besides right-wing lunatics, there is nothing to distinguish the six contenders' positions on abortion, once again the party's defining litmus test.
Of course, the debate has also focused on gun control and same-sex marriage, but even the party's most conservative supporters (and that's saying something in the GOP's shrunken state) could find no light between the candidates, at least not on marriage. There is also complete agreement on burning issues, such as which president inspires them most: Ronald Reagan (surprise!).
To be fair, not all Republicans have been obsessed solely with abortion in recent days: the Congressional GOP, for instance, seems to have been more preoccupied than the RNC candidates with the state of the economy. This is not likely to last as: a) they got us here in the first place so there is really little for them to add; b) it has just occurred to them that they are no longer in charge. It took a firm "I won" by Obama in response to a whining Republican Senator Jon Kyl to put the latter in his place. This will most likely lead Republicans back to what they know best: reaffirming to one another the sanctity of life, heterosexual marriage and gun ownership.
The GOP is clearly in a dismal state, but the grim numbers alone do not tell the full story. Yes, they were crushed in November everywhere outside of Appalachia. Yes, they are in a hopeless minority in Congress. Yes, they even lost ground in the South. But this shriveling power would count for little in the long-term if there were a sense of potential political renewal. Instead, Republicans are scuttling back to a series of social matters at the pinnacle of which sits abortion, an issue settled decades ago in the United States. It is hard to imagine that beyond the mad fringe of the party, abortion ranks anywhere near the top issues anyone cares about. Put it this way: only 6% of the general electorate ranked abortion as the most pressing issue facing the country at the time of the November election (and only 11% of Republicans.) And that was before the economy dissolved further into something approaching a depression.
One challenge for Republicans is that there are few, if any, voices of reason left in the party, especially in Congress. Moderates long ago fled or were kicked out. There are probably only two truly centrist Republicans in the Senate, the two women from Maine. The House is more than ever dominated by Southern religious extremists who, outside of their narrow constituencies, are loathed and unelectable. Republican Governors are often a tad more pragmatic, as they actually have to govern, but only a handful of them can be even remotely labeled as moderate. More worrisome for the party, and perhaps for democracy, is that middle-of-the-road Republicans are also becoming extinct, replaced either by Democrats in places like Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia or North Carolina, or by right-wing nut jobs in Utah. Of the "ten most liberal Senators" according to the conservative Human Events, five are no longer in the Senate, just six months after the list was compiled. This leaves a party that is in near-complete lock-step, especially on the social issues that have come to define it and that have become a blunt instrument of exclusion. It has been a long time since the Republican Party has even pretended to be a big tent. For years now, people like the gay Log Cabin Republicans have been little more than a running joke on late-night shows. As the party has swung ever further right, such cultural moderates have been reduced to defending their party affiliation on the basis of economic rather than social issues, which has not exactly ended up being a winning proposition for them.
By comparison, the Democratic Party has expanded and matured into an organization that aggregates a wide range of views while staying true to a core identity. In recent years, much of the credit for this potentially dangerous balancing act goes to three people from some of the most liberal bastions in the country, San Francisco, Chicago and Vermont. Nancy Pelosi, one of the most progressive members of Congress, has been both pragmatic and potent in her role as Speaker of the House, finding ways to placate her left-wing base while securing substantial roles for the new centrists in Congress. Rahm Emmanuel, as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, played a key role in identifying and supporting candidates with a good ideological fit for districts previously seen as unapproachably Republican. And Howard Dean, as head of the Democratic National Committee, instituted a 50-state strategy that paid rich dividends in some of the unlikeliest places, including Idaho, Mississippi, and Alabama, not to mention helping once-red states such as Indiana and North Carolina flip to the Democrats. And now, of course, Obama is looking to build an even broader coalition.
On many issues, the Democratic Party is now home to sometimes jarringly diverse opinions. On abortion, for instance, the contrast with Republicans is stark: naturally, there are more "pro-choice" Democrats than abortion opponents, but the latter include some very high-profile names, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. On the bailout and on the stimulus package, too, the disagreements within the Democratic Party have been clear, while remaining orderly. Time, and Obama's popularity, will tell whether the dialogue will remain as respectful. That said, there are of course some false notes in the Democrats' big tent: freshman Rep. Bobby Bright from Alabama mysteriously voting against SCHIP, which provides health care to families with children; Obama inviting rabidly homophobic pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration; Mississippi Congressman Travis Childers and a handful of other Democrats voting against equal pay for women. Nonetheless, these instances are remarkably rare, and notable for the fact that the party moves on from them without undue drama.
To be sure, the Democratic Party has its own litmus tests, but they are more in evidence locally than nationally. Newly designated New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the most conservative member of the state's overwhelmingly Democratic delegation, is a prime example. Heretofore opposed to same-sex marriage, she changed her position overnight ("evolved" in cute political speak), a step Gov. David Paterson, in charge of picking Hillary Clinton's replacement, is sure to have demanded. Next to "evolve" will be her toxic right-wing positions on guns and immigration, two certain deal-killers in a New York Democratic primary.
One of the most striking aspects of the Democratic Party's rise is that it has defied conventional wisdom. The party has not shifted rightward on most issues. In fact, if anything, it has lurched to the left: from gay rights to trade to the role of government generally, this is clearly not Bill Clinton's Democratic party. The National Journal labeling Obama as the most liberal member of the Senate hardly seems to have dented his success in November. Nor did having a San-Francisco-Liberal as its most prominent member of the House hurt the party's Congressional chances. Perhaps it is such achievements that are inspiring Republicans to move into a right-wing twilight zone in the hope of energizing their base and capturing the soul of what they sadly still deem to be a "center-right" country. George W. Bush and Congressional Republicans lost their way, the thinking goes, and there is an opportunity to return to the party's roots of small government, unmarried gays and outlawed abortion. This attitude is completely anachronistic, not unlike a Communist bemoaning the fact that things would have been different if Marxism-Leninism had truly been given a chance in the Soviet Union. In fact, the Republican strategy increasingly sounds like the demon child of Mao's Cultural Revolution and Stalin's five-year plans: a criminal intolerance of cultural and social differences combined with an outrageously failed economic policy. Ah, but yes, if only Republican policies had truly been given a chance.