Archive for the 'GOP' Category

Of Republican Senators running in 2010, not one supports Sotomayor

As expected, Sonya Sotomayor was easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The 68-31 roll call vote is tighter than John Robert’s 78-22 confirmation - but it is far larger than Samuel Alito’s 58-42.

All Democrats but Teddy Kennedy voted in favor of Sotomayor’s nomination, something we might have thought was a given but remained unclear until the final hours before the vote: Presumably fearful of attracting the NRA’s wrath, Alaska Senator Mark Begich did not announce his support for the nominee until the afternoon. Robert Byrd’s showing up is also a relief for Demorats, as it suggests the ailing West Virginia Senator is healthy enough to drag himself to the Senate for major votes; that should prove useful when health care reform makes it to the chamber’s floor later this year.

Yet, the vote’s most interesting storyline concerns Republicans. Out of 40 Senators, 9 voted to confirm Sotomayor: Lamar Alexander, Kit Bond, Susan Collins, Lindsay Graham, Judd Gregg, Richard Lugar, Mel Martinez, Olympia Snowe and George Voinovich.

This list contains two very striking features:

  1. 4 of the 9 - Bond, Gregg, Martinez and Voinovich - have announced they will not seek re-election in 2010, which means that 66% of retiring Republicans supported Sotomayor. (And it’s not like the four are generally considered moderates: Both Bond and Gregg are typically reliably conservative votes.)
  2. None of the other 5 Senators is facing re-election in 2010. In other words, not a single Republican who is running for re-election in 2010 voted to confirm Sotomayor.

Put these two facts together, and it certainly suggests that Republican Senators are genuinely scared that base anger is a far bigger threat to their re-election prospects than looking too conservative or attracting the wrath of Hispanic voters.

That’s all the more clear when you consider that this is the first time that John McCain (AZ), Bob Bennett (UT), Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) and Chuck Grassley (IA) have ever opposed the confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice. All three supported Ruth Ginsburg in 1993 and Stephen Breyer in 1994. So what changed?

Well, Hutchison is running against Texas Governor Rick Perry in what has already become a race to the far-right; Bennett is fighting for his political life against a slate of conservative opponents who are trying to topple him at a state convention dominated by party activists; and McCain is facing a challenge from the right from a Minuteman founder who is sure to make immigration a top issue (how would McCain’s support for a Hispanic nominee fit into that?).

As for Grassley, there is continued speculation that Iowa conservatives are angry enough at him that a primary challenger could gain some traction. (Also: Today’s vote should take care of all speculation that Grassley might retire next year. Democrats shouldn’t count on an Iowa open seat before 2016.)

Heading into the health care debate, the Republican Senators’ desire to stand by conservative activists raises obvious questions as to the prospect of a bipartisan bill. In the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus has excluded most Democrats to negotiate with 3 Republicans - Snowe, Grassley and Enzi, two of which have just voted against Sotomayor today.

How likely is it that Grassley will accept championing a meaningful reform if he is feeling enough conservative pressure to oppose Sotomayor? After all, support of the Democrats’ health care bill is likely to be considered a far bigger betrayal by the Republican base than a vote for Sotomayor. Given that, imagine how much Grassley will force the health care bill to be watered down before he allows Baucus to trumpet a bipartisan agreement - and that’s before we even put Enzi in the equation, as his reputation is more conservative than Grassley’s.

Courting the “average, every-day white guy,” or the GOP’s demographic dilemma

For much of the past week, a number of Republicans leaders have appealed to racial issues in taking on Sonia Sotomayor. They’ve argued that a woman who received her year’s top academic award at Princeton has only progressed in life because of preferential treatment (few attacks were as comical as this one), called her a “Latina racist” and complained that Obama did not consider any member of the oppressed ‘Anglo male’ group. Yesterday, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham made the appeal explicit in blasting Sotomayor’s 2001 statement comparing a “wise Latina” judge and a white male judge:

Being an average, every-day white guy … that does not exactly make me feel good hearing a sitting judge say that.

In looking for a remake of the racially stimulated backlash that helped Republicans conquer and then solidify their power from 1968 to 1980, Republicans have been hoping to trigger outrage among white voters. But to what benefit? Do they realize that political circumstances have changed? The GOP cannot emulate the comeback strategy it used 40 to 30 years ago for a very simple reason: Republicans don’t have that much room to grow among white voters - let alone among white males!

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Democrats were still competitive among white voters (Carter received 48% of the vote in 1976 - almost as good as his overall result), it made political sense for the GOP to appeal to white ethnics by looking to capitalize on issues like busing and welfare programs. But white voters are now already Republican - and it’s not by courting them that the GOP will get back in power.

Four years after John Kerry lost the presidential election by 3%, Barack Obama prevailed by 7%. But that 10% improvement was not due to the white vote; in fact, Obama underperformed among white voters since he only closed Kerry’s deficit by 5% - half of his overall improvement. If we look at the white male vote, here again Obama’s rise of 9% (57% to 41% rather than 62% to 37%) falls short of his overall boost.

Going through the exit polls of the past 9 presidential elections, the GOP’s electoral challenge becomes clearer:

Year White vote Republican over-performance among white voters
1976 52-48 for Ford + 6
1980 56-36 for Reagan + 10
1984 64-36 for Regan + 10
1988 60-40 for Bush + 13
1992 41-39 for Bush + 8
1996 46-44 for Dole + 10
2000 54-43 for Bush + 11
2004 58-41 for Bush + 14
2008 55-43 for McCain + 19

There are two clear lessons from this chart:

  1. The GOP’s hold on the white vote today is stronger than at any other point over the past thirty years: It is striking that McCain received a larger share of the white vote than Gerald Ford in 1976 (he lost by only 2% overall) and than George W. Bush in 2000. (The situation in 1992 and 1996 is more muddied because of Ross Perot’s presence on the ballot.)
  2. The gap between the Republican nominee’s overall lead/deficit and his lead among white voters keeps growing: It tripled between 1976 and 2008, nearly doubled between 1996 to 2008). This comes to say that the GOP is increasingly over-performing among whites: In 1976, Gerald Ford won the white vote by 4% but he lost the election by 2%; last fall, McCain improved Ford’s standing among whites by 8% but he was defeated by 5% more.

In short: Unable to appeal to minorities in the same way it does to white voters, the GOP has improved its dominance among the latter constituency but not enough to offset the combination of its rising deficit among minorities and of the drop of the share of white voters.

Given this situation, why are Republican politicians explicitly portraying themselves as the party of the “average white guy?”

Since the GOP is already dominant among white voters, it is not realistic for them to expect their party to grow that much more among that constituency - in case they have not noticed, there are some white liberals. Nor would it necessarily help them clinch victory: Even if they do as well as Bush’s 2004 performance (+17% among whites, a lead comparable to his father’s 20% victory in 1988 in an election that was more favorable to the GOP), they would not be guaranteed an overall lead.

On the other hand, Republicans must be terrified at the idea that they might lose their hold on the white vote since that is the only thing that is keeping them from fading into complete political irrelevance. They are afraid of being left in a huge hole if they lose the advantage they have fashioned among white voters with decades of rants on social and racial matters  -not to mention that many of today’s party heads owe their leadership role to the GOP’s current demographic make-up.

This is the GOP’s basic dilemma. To put themselves in a position to win, Republicans need to court minorities in general and Hispanics in particular. Yet, that is a long-term operation that might not pay dividends in the short-run - quite the contrary as it could anger the type of white voters Graham is courting. The GOP’s current leaders see the medecine the party needs to take as too bitter a pill - but they’re going to have to take it sooner or later to put themselves in a position of copmeting in 2012 and beyond.

Within the GOP, the conciliation camp versus the purist faction

Jon Huntsman’s decision to accept Barack Obama’s ambassadorial appointment is being interpreted as just another chapter in the GOP’s ideological war - along with Arlen Specter’s party switch and the looming Senate primaries in Missouri or Florida. Yet, Huntsman is no centrist; portraying him as such misses the point of why his move to China is significant.

In 2004, Huntsman ran for Governor as a conservative alternative to Republican incumbent Olene Smith Walker - and this is Utah’s GOP primary we are talking about. Over the following years, he continued to govern from the right (as is expected from a Utah Governor) but, as has been covered extensively, he attracted national attention by breaking with Republican activists on a few issues. The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru wrote today:

I’ve now read a few articles and blog posts either lauding the Utah governor as a moderate or denouncing him as same. Huntsman has signed pro-life bills, voucher bills, and tax cuts. Yes, he is open to some kind of civil union for gay couples and wants Republicans to make more of an effort on environmental issues. But if that’s all it takes for a Republican politician to get an image both inside and outside the party as a “moderate” these days, that’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it?

Indeed, what it means to be a “moderate Republican” has changed quite a bit as the GOP’s centrist ranks have been decimated. For one, right-wing politicians like Arlen Specter abruptly found themselves representing the party’s far-left - a position they did not occupy when there was still an abundance on New England Republicans. This drift explains how someone with Huntsman’s conservative politics could have come to be viewed as “moderate.”

Second, the definition of “moderate Republican” has lost some of its substantive significance. Instead of designating a faction of people with a similar (Rockefellerian) ideological approach, it is now used to refer to anyone who dares break with an element of conservative orthodoxy as enunciated by Republican activists and the likes of Rush Limbaugh. (For instance, Mel Martinez’s support for immigration reform gave him a still-lingering reputation as a moderate.)

While it is significant that some Republicans have taken positions that have attracted the ire of party activists, this is obviously not enough to make them moderates. In fact, there is currently little evidence of a large-scale war between moderates and conservatives within the Republican Party - largely because the former group has long lost the battle.

Rather than such a substantive or ideological contrast, the more meaningful distinction should be drawn between what we could call the conciliation faction and the purist faction. The former group wants the GOP to have a broad tent, the latter group insists that the path back to power resides in an all-out confrontational strategy and a return to the party’s ideological roots.

A recent example of purist rhetoric comes from Senator Jim DeMint, who asserted again today at South Carolina’s GOP convention that 30 Senators who stand firm on principles are more desirable than 60 Senators who do not. Also, it is along this opposition that the Texas primary between Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rick Perry should be interpreted - and it is also thus that Huntsman’s recent political moves make the most sense.

The purist camp is moving so far to the right that it is condemning itself to a tough time - not to mention that those who are emerging as this faction’s public leaders (Limbaugh, Sarah Palin) are far from the best P.R. faces.

That said, there is something to be said for the purist positioning; The GOP will not regain its footing before Barack Obama’s approval rating falls enough that voters have gone sour on Democrats and on his economic agenda. When that happens, it is those Republicans who took clear stances against spending, tax policies or the stimulus that will appear to Obama’s skeptics as most able to channel their own political positioning; with time, the President’s toughest critics could come to be viewed as his best opponents.

As a parallel, think back to the 2004 presidential race: John Kerry spent a lot of time having to explain why he had repeatedly given Bush the benefit of the doubt and why he was suddenly opposing policies he had spent years supporting. Kerry should have known that it’s not like a Democrat would have had any chance of beating Bush if Iraq had been going well a year after the war started; as such, he had far less to lose in voting against the war than he believed in October 2002. Similarly, the GOP’s 2012 nominee will have little chance if Obama policies like the stimulus are viewed as having succeeded. So what would be the point of nominating a stimulus supporter like Crist?

Finally, the confusion over the definition of “moderate Republican” is something against which Democrats should guard themselves. In particular, they should be careful not to shower praise on Republicans because it could come back to bite them. For years, John McCain was many Democrats’ favorite Republican; this allowed him to build his maverick reputation that made him look for a long time like the GOP’s strongest general election nominee. Now, the same warning applies for Republicans like Huntsman: By advancing his reputation as a “reasonable” GOPer with “moderate” credentials, Demcorats are bolstering the profile of a man they might have to worry about in 2016.

Limbaugh’s leadership

When Democrats launched their effort to portray the GOP as a party led by Rush Limbaugh, they surely were not expecting to be this successful. In a remarkably concerted effort, Democratic leaders - from Rahm Emanuel all the way down to TV pundits - have placed Limbaugh under the spotlight of the mainstream media, introducing him to a larger public than his typical conservative audience. Limbaugh’s role in the party has become a major story about which all GOP politicians are being questioned, and most are owning up their proximity to Limbaugh.

Political repercussions: How much do Democrats stand to gain?

This story is getting blown out of proportions, and the importance of the Democrats’ maneuver should be relativised. Both parties routinely try to portray an unpopular figure as the opposition’s de facto leader. Over the past four years, Republicans did their best to exploit Nancy Pelosi’s low favorability numbers, calling on voters not to cast a ballot for Pelosi’s party. Even though Pelosi had a much more legitimate claim over the Democratic leadership than Limbaugh does over the GOP, that did not get Republicans very far. If anything, that argument distracted them from more useful lines of attack.

American parties have little coherence given the wide ideological range they each represent. Unless there is a wave election like in 1994 and in 2006 (and, to a far lesser extent, like in 2008), voters are used to thinking of their local candidates separately from the national parties, and choosing a nationally renown foil is rarely successful. (The situation is obviously different if the foil is someone who is quite obviously actually leading a party, which is the situation the GOP was in with George W. Bush over the past two cycles.) If anything, the discourse of the GOP’s right wing is considered far more legitimate than the discourse of the Democratic Party’s left wing, making Limbaugh that much less of an effective foil.

Finally, what Barack Obama does over the next two years, his success at fixing the economy and the evolution of his approval rating will practically be the only factor that determine whether moderate voters and conservative-leaning independent voters get over their aversion for the GOP and consider voting for Republicans again after two cycles in which they acted like partisan Democrats.

All of these nuances said, the Limbaugh controversy could still have important repercussions.

For one, Republican leaders are shooting themselves in the foot. For all prominent Republicans to refuse to criticize Limbaugh might prove the Democrats’ point, but it would also cut the story short and allow the GOP to refuse to play the Democrats’ game. But a few Republicans’ bundled answers are creating a giant mess for the entire party. Last month, Rep. Phil Gingrey was forced to apologize after criticizing the conservative host.

This week, it was Michael Steele’s turn to commit a major faux pas in dismissing Limbaugh as a mere “entertainer.” Limbaugh immediately blasted Steele. “Now, Mr. Steele, if it is your position as the chairman of the Republican National Committee that you want a left-wing Democrat president and a left-wing Democrat Congress to succeed in advancing their agenda… I think you have some explaining to do,” he said. “Why are you running the Republican Party?” Steele quickly moved to apologize. “I respect Rush Limbaugh. He is a national conservative leader, and in no way do I want to diminish his voice,” he said in a statement.”

Steele’s quick turn-around boosts the Democrats’ argument beyond their wildest dreams. Not only does it help Democrats make Limbaugh into the voice of the GOP’s mainstream, but it also shows Republican leaders as weak, fearful of Limbaugh’s influence and willing to quickly bow to his demands. That could greatly hurt Republicans.

Second, I think that the charge of obstructionism is more damaging to the GOP than the charge of extremism - and Limbaugh helps Democrats define Republicans as the former as much as the latter. After all, the Limbaugh controversy started after the radio host said he wanted Obama to fail. That will allow Democrats to help portray the GOP as so blindly hateful of the President that they will reject any of his offers of bipartisanship; and it could help the White House put some of the blame on the GOP if the economy continues to go badly over the next few years.

Finally, Limbaugh is a dangerous figure for the GOP to become closely associated with because Limbaugh’s first allegiance is not to the Republican Party! Sure, Limbaugh supports GOP candidates, attacks Democratic politicians and is courted by Republican leaders, as we have seen over the past month. But he is first and foremost a conservative who wants to advance his principles and often does so by blasting Republicans. That obviously puts Limbaugh in a very different category than someone like Pelosi, whose first commitment is to helping the Democratic Party. Thus, Limbaugh will not back down from doing something if he thinks it will help the conservative movement while putting the GOP in an awkward position, which is why there is so much promise in the Democrats’ success in dragging him to the mainstream.

The merits of the debate: Should Limbaugh’s comments be that controversial?

I would like to conclude this discussion by looking at the merits of Limbaugh’s comments rather than their political repercussions. The radio host got in trouble with Democratic leaders when he said “I hope he fails,” referring to Obama. “What is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what’s gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here.” Democrats immediately accused Limbaugh of wanting America to fail and of desiring that the country does not regain its economic footing under Obama.

There are two possible ways to interpret Limbaugh’s remarks. The first is what some Republicans have been spinning Limbaugh as having meant: He wants Obama to fail to implement his agenda and reform the country because he disagrees with Obama’s policies. In subsequent comments, Limbaugh has been insisting that he is standing by his original formulation, though there is no question that he is moving closer to this latter way of framing the matter. “what is so strange about being honest to say that I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation?” he said recently. “Why would I want that to succeed?”

The second interpretation is the one Democrats have been proposing: Once the liberal agenda is implemented, Limbaugh wants America to stay economically weak and military threatened so that voters turn against Obama. Thus, Robert Gibbs replied to Limbaugh’s recent reformulation: “I think it would be charitable to say he doubled down on what he said in January in wishing and hoping for economic failure in this country.”

Many people would find the first interpretation shocking, though I certainly do not see anything wrong in one of the conservative movement’s prominent voices hoping that Obama’s policy proposals are defeated, either in congressional votes or because of the pressure of public opinion (like in 1994). That’s what a political opposition does, and that’s what a political opposition should do for democracy to function.

The second interpretation - to which Limbaugh’s original formulation definitely sounded closest to - is obviously much more difficult to justify. Given that one is supposed to have policy/ideological preferences based on what one thinks will help the country the most, it is a cynical position to adopt to desire the country to get worse for your own party to come in power.

Yet, it is worth pointing out that a liberal and a conservative’s vision of economic prosperity are different, and that might makes it somewhat less cynical to hope for liberal policies to fail even once they are implemented. The type of success left-wing policies are aimed towards is not exactly the type of success conservative policies are aimed at achieving. For the former, success requires some measure of economic equality, and economic growth without social protections could be deemed a “failure;” on the other hand, Friedmanites would view equality maintained by government’s intervention as a nightmarish situation that is preventing even greater economic growth.

The problem for Rush Limbaugh and the GOP is not that that they are too commited to an ideology. Rather, they were defeated based on which ideology they were so committed to, and they will be defeated again if liberals manage to restore faith in government and finally provide Americans a decent level of social protection.

Steele’s party

Yesterday, Maryland’s former Lieutenant Governor Mike Steele became the new NRC Chairman, defeating South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson in the sixth round of balloting. Earlier ballots had led to the withdrawal of other high-profile candidate, including current Chairman Mike Duncan.

Getting elected was the easy party. Steele now faces the quite daunting task of rebuilding an unpopular party that is locked out of the White House and is in a deep hole in both chambers of Congress.

What does Steele’s victory mean for American politics and for the future of the Republican Party?

The most appropriate answer, of course, is that there is no way to know before we see Steele at work. Maryland’s former Lieutenant Governor is no RNC insider and he has a somewhat conflicted relationship with conservative activists, so will he be able to exercise sufficient authority? Will he fundraise effectively? Will he be able to rebuild the GOP infrastructure, develop adequate strategies to oppose Barack Obama? It will take time to answer these questions. After all, few people expected that Howard Dean would be such a good chairman of the DNC; his backers might have expected him to steer the party in the right direction - but did they foresee how effective a grassroots operation he would be able to build?

At the very least, we know that Steele was among the best communicators of the Republican field, and that will matter since one of the main duties of a RNC Chairman is to represent the GOP on cable news and on Sunday’s political shows. Steele’s victory has already gotten Chris Matthews to admit that he voted for him in Steele’s failed senatorial bid in 2006 (and Matthews wanted to run for Pennsylvania’s Democratic nomination?).

There are certainly other important points we can make already - whether on the politics of race, the declining influence of the South and the GOP’s ideological civil war.


Coming less than two weeks after Obama’s inauguration, the symbol of the GOP electing its first African-American leader is certainly a meaningful - and substantive - development. For one, it underscores the GOP’s fear at possible racial undertones in its criticism of Obama. This concern was heightened by the fact that Steele’s opponent in the last ballot (Katon Dawson) had belonged to an all-white club and had said he had been moved to politics by his opposition to busing.

Furthermore, Republicans are surely aware of their need to reach out to minorities. The magnitude of the party’s losses in 2006 and in 2008 can be attributed to a dramatic swing to the left of the Hispanic community and to historic turnout among African-Americans. Republicans have been talking about fixing those trends for much of the decade, of course, so it is unlikely that they can regain the trust of minorities simply by electing an African-American leader (Mel Martinez’s term as RNC Chairman did not help, after all), but they can’t be blamed for trying. At the very least, they avoided the public relations disaster of opening the Obama era by electing an all-white club member.

“Insider vs. outsider” rather than “conservative vs. moderate”

Steele is often being described as the most moderate candidate of the RNC race, and he certainly was not as far too the right as some of his competitors - whether Dawson or Ohio’s former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Furthermore, Steele drew opposition from conservative activists in the final weeks of the race; memos were circulated, for instance, about Steele’s contacts with Log Cabin Republicans.

That being said, Steele is undoubtedly a conservative - not only by Maryland standards, but also by national one. For instance, Steele got a ringing endorsement by Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who proclaimed him to be the “best kind of conservative.” Saying that others were further to the right does not say that much when the others are party chairs and grassroots leaders.

If anything, Steele’s status as an outsider running against figures of the Republican establishment (whether Dawson or Duncan) is far more relevant than his ideological positioning - and it is this status that made Steele acceptable (perhaps even desirable) by the party’s right. Conservative activists want to bring the party back to its root after what they believe has been eight years of ideological disarray.

What better way to usher in a new era closer to conservative principles than to kick out those who have been responsible until now and bring in new blood? Steele’s backers played on this dynamic to portray their champion as the heir of the Reagan Revolution. Steele’s election is “the most thoroughgoing change since Ronald Reagan took over the Party,” said for instance California Committeeman Shawn Steel.

Steele himself promised to bring the party back to clearer - and purer - roots. “This is the dawn of a new party,” he said. “There is not one inch of ground we’re going to cede to anybody… it’s important for us to be able to establish with clarity what we believe.”

The end of Southern hegemony?

In 2008, Obama managed to fissure the GOP’s hold on the South by carrying Virginia and North Carolina while coming close to winning Georgia. At the same time, the Deep South looked like the last refuge of a Republican Party left for dead in the Northeast and in much of the Midwest and Southwest.

Some Republican leaders started to complain that the South had too much of a hold on Republican politics, endangering the GOP’s electability elsewhere in the country. This was one of the main arguments motivating the campaign of Saul Anuzis, and one of the main arguments against a Dawson chairmanship.

Steele’s win is the logical conclusion of these concerns. His narrow victory against Dawson is first and foremost that of a non-Southern against a Southerner, and that is sure to have dramatic consequences on the future of the Republican Party. It could shift the balance of power or resource allocation within the RNC, and it could mean that Southern constituencies losing influence - starting with evangelicals - to the benefit of Republicans more concerned with a pro-business stance and fiscal conservatism.

Stimulus politics

Last night, the stimulus bill passed the House of Representatives 244-188. As everyone has heard by now, not a single Republican voted in favor of the bill - a surprising development given the Obama Administration’s efforts to get at least some GOP votes.

This opens up a number of fascinating questions about the path Republicans are taking in the early days of the Obama era. Today’s Republican House caucus is more conservative than it was four years ago, and that is bound to have consequences on the direction the GOP takes now that it finds itself locked out of power.

Yesterday’s vote is certainly a risky one for the GOP. The Republicans’ choice to entirely stand up to Obama at a time the new President enjoys high approval ratings and at a time voters want the government to take action to fix the economy could end up hurting the GOP brand further. (This is especially the case since Democrats had conceded a frustratingly large number of GOP demands before the bill’s passage; that will now help Democrats portray Republicans as obstructionist).

At the very least, the House GOP’s refusal to entertain this stimulus bill could strengthen some ideological differences between the two parties, making it far clearer than than usual that Democrats favor spending, infrastructure and governmental intervention while Republicans oppose such moves - even in the midst of an economic crisis like this one.

Of course, this is exactly the ideological clarification House conservatives want to bring about. But to the extent that the country now seems to be siding with the liberal argument and getting over the conservative “government is the problem” principles of the Reagan Revolution, the contrast is likely to hurt Republicans (at least in the short term).

Finally, yesterday’s vote could prove particularly problematic for vulnerable Republicans elected from economically distraught areas like Michigan or Ohio. Those who face a competitive 2010 race will have to explain their vote against the stimulus at a time their constituents are suffering more than most from the economic crisis. One name that comes to mind is Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (MI-11), who is shaping up to be one of the Democrats’ top targets of the 2010 cycle.

All of this said, it is of course entirely impossible to determine what electoral consequences the stimulus debate will have before we know how the economy will evolve over the next few years.

While no Republican voted for the bill, 11 Democrats voted against it. They are: Reps. Allen Boyd (FL-02), Bobby Bright (AL-02), Jim Cooper (TN-05), Brad Ellsworth (IN-08), Parker Griffith (AL-05), Paul Kanjorski (PA-11), Frank Kratovil (MD-01), Walt Minnick (ID-01), Collin Peterson (MN), Heath Shuler (NC-11), Gene Taylor (MS-04).

This list represents the who’s who of conservative Democrats. 10 of these representatives belong to the Blue Dog Coalition, with Kanjorski the only one who does not have such a right-wing profile - making his presence on the list somewhat unexpected. Yes, Kanjorski faced a very competitive race in 2008 (his survival was a surprise), but that had not prevented him from being one of the main champions of the original bailout bill. That did not prevent him from winning re-election a few weeks later.

Another interesting fact about this list is that 7 of these representatives were first elected in the 2006 and 2008 cycles, picking up GOP-held seats (only three defeated a Republican incumbent). All are considered to be highly endangered in the 2010 cycle, starting with Minnick and Kratovil, and that might explain their reluctance to take a politically risky vote when the Democratic leadership can get to a majority without their support.

On the other hand, there are a number of names on this list who are unlikely to face much of a race in 2010 (Allen Boyd, Jim Cooper, Collin Peterson, Gene Taylor), so there is nothing to attribute their vote to but their ideological leanings.

The battle for the GOP’s leadership

Only a few days have passed since John McCain’s defeat, but the GOP’s star are already positioning themselves for a 2012 run - or at the very least jostling to feel the power vacuum of the post-Bush era. If the next three years are as entertaining as this last week, we are in for quite a treat!

In many ways, what happens over the next few weeks will be as important as anything that might take place subsequently. Like any party that has suffered an electoral rout, the GOP is now in turmoil, but it will soon settle in a new routine that will be difficult to shake off. The emerging leaders, strategic and ideological course the GOP now chooses itself will have a big impact on their political identity over the next four years.

Republicans who acquired a national stature over the course of this year (Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee) must move quickly to build on their current strength. Those who have national ambitions but were largely left out of this cycle’s proceedings (Charlie Crist, Mark Sanford, John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich) have to build the networks that will be useful down the line before bigger names suck all the oxygen out of the room. And younger figures like Bobby Jindal or Eric Cantor must find ways to continue looking fresh and justify why so many conservatives see them as rising stars.

That many of these politicians are currently convening in Miami for the Republican Governors Association meeting makes the GOP’s leadership fight even more of a spectacle, as Palin, Crist, Jindal, Sanford and Pawlenty will struggle for attention in the hopes of getting credit for helping the GOP out of the wilderness.

Complicating the picture, of course, is that these quarrel of persons will be complemented by an ideological one: Should the party veer to the center or should it move further to the Right? Are Bush’s unpopularity and McCain’s defeat due to their conservative apostasy or do they signal that the GOP can no longer rely on its traditional playbook? Has the GOP been excessively Southernized?

In short: Who or what should be blamed for the party’s crushing defeat? Which politicians, what policy proposals, what demographic, what ideological trait?

These questions are never easy for a party to answer, and the blame game can easily be transformed into a hysterical firing squad in which seemingly every one has a different diagnostic, a different culprit and a different prescription. The moment is particularly urgent for Sarah Palin. While she remains popular in the conservative base (70% of Republican voters thought she was qualified according to last week’s exit polls), McCain’s advisers have chosen to dump a lot of the ticket’s failure on the Alaska Governor (McCain continues to publicly state that she did no harm) and a viciously brutal battle is currently being waged over her image.

Palin has to engage her critics as soon as possible in order to remain a player in Republican politics down the line, and she is clearly aware of this imperative as she has already engaged in an intensive media blitz -even delivering surprisingly honest admissions that she is thinking about a 2012 presidential run. One strategy she could employ to capture the good graces of the party establishment is to fundraise and stump on behalf of other candidates during the midterms, getting a number of Republican congressmen indebted to her. Barack Obama successfully employed such a strategy in 2006.

Before we even get to 2012, however, the GOP’s first high-profile leadership battle will take place in the coming weeks for the position of a RNC Chairman. There are numerous contenders representing all of the party’s sensibilities, and a number of story lines will be fascinating to follow. First, what success Newt Gingrich receives will tell us a lot about whether the Republican establishment is looking for a providential savior and how much they are counting on a repeat of the 1992-1994 sequence.

Second, there will be a fight between those like Saul Anuzis who say that the GOP has become too much of a Southern party and those like Katon Dawson (the chairman of South Carolina’s Republican Party) who want to protect the South’s grip on Republican politics.

The presidential election might be over, but there is still plenty to enjoy.

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