Speaking of the New Majority’s interest in winning places like Greenwich and Lincoln, the site published a piece by John Avlon on how Republicans could once again win in the Northeast. The suggestions aren’t all bad, but some of its analysis of the GOP’s current Northeastern dry spell seems a bit simplistic.
Avlon: “Ten years ago, before the Bush/Cheney/Rove/DeLay-era, centrist Republican congressmen and mayors dotted the Northeast – and only two states north of (and including) Pennsylvania had Democratic governors.” We’re talking about the 1990s here, when Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson were given speaking roles at the Republican National Convention, when the Christian Coalition was a far more potent political force than it is today, when Ralph Reed and George W. Bush were rising stars, when the Republican congressional leadership included controversial Southern political figures like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and — Tom DeLay.
Yet “centrist Republicans” like Rudy Giuliani, William Weld, Tom Ridge, Lincoln Almond, John Rowland, and Christine Todd Whitman did indeed dot the Northeast. None of these elected officials were socially conservative but the national party they belonged to certainly was. And the social conservatism of Jesse Helms and Oliver North was articulated in terms far less sensitive to centrist, suburban sensibilities (don’t say that phrase out loud if you have a lisp) than Bush’s. In the 1990s, both moderates and “rigid social-issues conservatives” — according to Avlon, “the primary internal obstacle to Republican renewal nationally” — flourished.
Just as they once flourished together, today both Republican factions are united in defeat. Moderate to liberal Republicans Chris Shays, Sue Kelly, Lincoln Chafee, and Connie Morrella weren’t purged by social conservatives — they were removed from office by the voters. Chafee was challenged by a more conservative candidate in the 2006 Republican primary but the conservative lost. Exit polls showed Chafee winning 94 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of conservatives that November. Arlen Specter beat a conservative in his 2004 primary. It’s true that there are a lot fewer moderate Northeastern Republicans in Congress than there once were. But with few exceptions — maybe Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrest or New Jersey Sen. Clifford Case (in 1978!) — it hasn’t been the social conservatives throwing them out of office.
So if moderate Republicans were once able to win despite the national party’s socially conservative brand, and if Republicans lose elections today even when they are personally moderate, it seems a little too simple to say that the problem is social conservatism as such. In the 1990s, both the Gingrich-Armey-DeLay national Republicans and the Giuliani-Weld-Whitman Northeastern Republicans were able to run against entrenced Democratic majorities that had governed badly. They disagreed about social issues but had a common platform of low taxes, balanced budgets, welfare reform, and crime control that resonated broadly. Republican hegemony in New England was as dead as the Democrats’ hold on the South, but the party still had a model for winning elections in hostile territory.
The Republicans’ biggest problem is that they are now seen as the entrenched party that governed badly. Social conservatives are not blameless in this, but neither are they the primary culprit — I don’t see many New Majority posts complaining about the Republican Party being out of touch about the war in Iraq, which pre-surge had more to do with the GOP’s decline than stem cells or Terri Schiavo. That may not be as easy to fix as the Republican platform plank on abortion. But that is where Republicans now find themselves, in the Northeast and most other places.