What If They Can’t Take The Capital?

H. H. Green, "Bird's Eye View of Washington, DC," 1916 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

We may not have reached the turning point in the 2012 campaign, but Mitt Romney‘s impolitic behavior has got me thinking about what it might mean for the Republican Party if it fails to take the presidency this time around.

The party wars raging these days are much like real wars in which a few goals are recognized as being of overwhelming importance.  In military conflict, taking or holding a capital is often paramount to victory. The force that fights to take a capital but never succeeds condemns itself to a war without end.  It never gains sway.

The outlook for the GOP

Despite the Republicans’ emphasis on unity, theirs is a badly divided party, composed of two parts, ideologically riven, and in real danger of breaking apart.  Throughout the campaign, moderates within the party have been hoping that its two wings can be welded together sufficiently to secure a presidential victory.  Should the Republican party fail of this goal, it will have difficulty convincing us that it remains a dominant political force.

The Republican Party still has vast resources and an impressive organization; it has some intelligent personnel and many, many backers and devotees.  Despite all this, it could go into decline, if the presidential contest suggests that it is no longer organized around ideas and policies that have national appeal, that can command the assent of a voting majority.

A party shy of the presidency

Is winning the presidency all that important to the life of a party?  It is when the party has been struggling for several presidential election cycles to demonstrate that its candidates truly represent the will of the people.  Historically, when a party cannot win the White House, that party fades.  It happened with the Federalist party to which the Founders belonged.  It happened to the Whig Party in the 1850s.  It happens when a perfectly good party lack leaders capable of reshaping the party’s ideology for changing times.

A party that cannot win the presidency risks the loss of its adherents and its leadership, too.  Without the presidency, a party cannot initiate and bring legislation to fruition without cooperation from the other side.  The Republican Party has set itself in opposition to the Democratic Party.  Instead of building the goodwill that has historically proved the salvation of a minority party, it has shown open and increasing enmity toward the other side.

Emphasis on controlling the electoral process

Anxiety pervades the Republican Party, which since the year 2000 has concentrated more and more, not on recasting itself ideologically, but on controlling the electoral process in hope of achieving a favorable return.  Ever since George W. Bush’s contested win that year, which came down to interpreting a bunch of chads clinging to physical ballots in Florida, the Republicans have become obsessed with state-level control of the election rolls.

G. W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 occurred amid controversies over voter suppression in states like Ohio, where Republicans had succeeded in removing voters from the rolls through aggressive challenges.  In the current election cycle, we have seen concerted efforts in several Republican-controlled states to tighten up voting requirements and to make it more difficult for certain classes of voters to gain representation or vote early.

Only respect for the electorate can save the GOP

It’s a shame, because intelligent leadership and constructive ideas are what the GOP needs.  In the end, only better ideas and a genuine respect of the electorate can save the Republican Party from the minority status that threatens it now.

Image: H. H. Green, “Bird’s eye view of Washington, DC” (1916), from this source.
Other wonderful old maps and views of the nation’s capital are here.

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Voter Harassment, Circa 2012, New York Times.
Is the Republican Party Dying?, Our Polity.
A Great White Nation of Self-Made Men, Our Polity.
Democrats: Shake It Up, Our Polity.
2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II), Our Polity.