Unlike corporations, political parties are not people and can’t really be said to die. Nevertheless, this is a good moment to remember—despite conservatives’ howls of existential panic—that the Republican Party, much like the Democratic Party, is going to be around a long, long time, and will likely outlive the United States of America.
Given the transparent ineptitude of the Romney campaign, this seems an unlikely prognosis. Things are so bad that Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and conservative Queen of Reasonableness, freaked out and called for a campaign intervention, then decided to issue a correction days later: “This week I called [the Romney campaign] incompetent, but only because I was being polite. I really meant ‘rolling calamity.’” Rush Limbaugh has gone into full-on panic mode (his only other mode is “pharmaceutically indisposed”): “If Obama wins,” he cries, “It’s the end of the Republican Party. There’s going to be a third party that’s going to be orientated towards conservatism—or Rand Paul thinks libertarianism.” Liberals smell blood. “GOP Civil War Is Coming,” the Daily Beast’s Bob Shrum says, looking forward to a series of defeats for “the party of angry white men.”
Announcing that one of our political parties is dying is an American pastime, just like announcing that the Dear Leader is still alive used to be a hobby in Communist countries. Hunter S. Thompson had fever dreams of the Democratic Party’s demise in 1972, and back in 2003—acclaimed genius Paul Krugman had some portentous words of wisdom: “The foundations for one-party rule are being laid right now,”; everywhere you could see “symptoms of the emergence of an unprecedented national political machine, one that is well on track to establishing one-party rule in America.” Yeah, nine years ago the voice of the Newspaper of Record was terrified of the GOP.
“Why isn't the ongoing transformation of U.S. politics—which may well put an end to serious two-party competition—getting more attention?” Krugman wrote. Reduced to screaming in alarm about the danger that Rick Santorum and Tom DeLay would control America through a complex system of lobbying and bullying, Krugman had to wait in agony for a final answer to his morbid query.
And sure enough, in just a few short years…
The GOP was smashed on the rocks and left to rot in the sun. Barack Obama rode in and Bush and Co. rode out. The Tea Party made a moderate-sized fuss—just big enough to nominate some unelectable candidates for Congress—and the Republicans wound up going with Mitt Romney, the white guy’s white guy, as their standard bearer. Mitt turned out to be so unexciting that he picked Paul Ryan, a career politician famous for being reactionary and good at math, to inject some oomph into his limp campaign. Ryan turned more into Romney than Romney turned into him, the ticket began its downward dive, and here we are, laughing bitterly at Krugman’s now-stupid nightmare. (Rick Santorum, controller of fate? Admit it, you’re laughing. On the inside.)
But wait. Maybe Krugman wasn’t so stupid after all. He just ignored the truly Satanic possibility that many of the horrors of governance perpetrated by one-party rule could be pulled off with a bipartisan tag team. Out goes Republican statism, in comes Democratic statism. The only thing that changes is which side is yelling about the abuse of executive privilege.
When the GOP or the Dems get the wind kicked out of them, they don’t shatter into fragments or self-destruct in an orgy of violence. Both parties have roots that go too deep for that. Instead, they circle the institutional wagons, eat old convention confetti, drink cold sweat, and wait. The Democrats did this after George McGovern failed so miserably in ’72 that except for Jimmy Carter (who ran against a post-Watergate Gerald Ford), no Democratic presidential candidate made a voter smile until 1992.
That’s over 20 years of grisly disgrace. Democrats didn’t just survive by hanging onto their Congressional seats out of a combination of vivid memories and American distaste for one-party rule. They survived because their national leadership sucked it up and manned the ghost ship until the misery, by some mixture of luck and wishful thinking, could be campaigned away.
Expect nothing less from Republicans. Arguably, Republicans stand an even better chance, despite being even more rootless and organizationally depraved than Democrats in their dark era. A Romney loss won’t settle anything about which school of right-wing thought is more or less viable in a general election. Romney/Ryan isn’t a RINO ticket. Or a purist ticket. Or a libertarian, paleocon, social-conservative, or Chamber-of-Commerce ticket, or anything else. It is a hodgepodge, and the death of a hodgepodge proves nothing.
It doesn’t matter if Romney is edged out or crushed like a beetle. The GOP will trundle on, fueled by the blood of Marco Rubio, the sweat of Chris Christie, and the tears of John Boehner. If a libertarian coup succeeds, the GOP will live on. If a libertarian coup fails, and the party reverts to being dominated by evangelicals, it will live on anyway.
Brands come and brands go, but parties are forever. They can be anything—anything a person can vote for—because, in the end, that is all they are: a thing that people can vote for. Democrats can take a lot of things away from the Republican party—votes, constituents, the will to live—but the GOP will live regardless. Even if it gets stuck being the party of angry white men, America's not going to run out of white men—or anger—any time soon. The days when multiple parties could triumph have long since passed, thanks to a universal agreement in the media and legislature that there are only two sides to every issue. If Teddy Roosevelt were alive today, he’d never wander off to found the Bull Moose Party.
On the other had, no one can accept real one-party rule. The pendulum of power always needs somewhere to swing in a democracy, and the major party out of power is always, even on its apparent deathbed, ready to reach out its trembling hands and catch it.
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