GOP Gone from "Lockstep Discipline" to "Inner Confusion"

The Times' alleged conservative, Week in Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, again denigrates the Republican Party.

Alleged Times conservative and Times Week in Review/Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus used the shock resignation of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to further denigrate the Republican Party's prospects in his Week in Review story, "Another Reflection of G.O.P. Division."


Grant the Republicans this much at least: they're no longer boring. Just when the novelty of the Argentine dalliance of Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina had begun to fade, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska enlivened a ho-hum Fourth of July with her announcement that she would abruptly terminate her first term and instead seek to "effect positive change outside government."


Tanenhaus, like other liberal media figures, refuses to portray the Republican party in down-to-earth terms; in their minds, the GOP functions as either a regrettably successful example of "lockstep discipline," or it's coming apart at the seams and not a moment too soon.


The announcement by the freelancing politician may be the best example yet of the striking transformation in the current Republican Party. Only a few years ago, the party was considered a model of lockstep discipline with around-the-clock message control and seamless coordination of policy and politics. But from all appearances, it has entered a period of inner confusion, verging on the dysfunctional. Some of that dysfunction was on display earlier last week, when word surfaced of a Vanity Fair profile of Ms. Palin that showed her often to be at odds, and sometimes at swords' point, with Alaska Republicans and also with party strategists when she ran on the Republican ticket with John McCain in 2008.


How did so organized a party come apart so swiftly? One explanation is that it hasn't been swift at all. The Republicans have been in decline for some time - and in recent years, even in disarray. Since the peak years of Republican success in the 1980s, the party's candidates have only sometimes been vote-snagging virtuosos. Dating back to 1992, Republicans have won a plurality in only one presidential election - and that lone victory, in 2004, was not nearly the triumph it appeared to be at the time. Its architect, Karl Rove, spoke of establishing a "permanent majority" for the Republicans, but in reality Mr. Bush won by less than 3 percentage points - one of the narrowest re-elections in presidential history. And although he claimed a mandate, his two big second-term initiatives - privatizing Social Security and immigration reform - were easily thwarted. Some of the strongest opposition came from within Mr. Bush's own - further evidence that the Republicans were even then losing their cohesiveness.


Tanenhaus is really reaching to support his GOP-in-disarray thesis. Before Obama won 53% of the vote against John McCain in 2008, it had been 32 years - Jimmy Carter's less than staggering 50.1% of the vote in 1976 - since the Democrats had won a plurality. Over that same span, Republicans Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush won three elections by plurality vote, two of them quite comfortably (Reagan's 60%-40% win over Walter Mondale in 1984 and Bush's 54%-46% win over Michael Dukakis in 1988).


Ms. Palin's emergence as a national candidate was itself the outcome of tension within the party. Mr. McCain's top choices were said to include Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania and Mr. Bush's first director of homeland security, and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman. Each was an experienced and prominent official. Each had established his strong loyalty to Mr. Bush, the party's unrivaled leader. But both were also deemed insufficiently conservative by the party's rank and file, and so were passed over. Mr. McCain's inability to assert his will in this crucial matter was a clear sign of party fractiousness. And the sudden, dramatic emergence of Governor Palin - and the controversy that instantly greeted her candidacy - created the impression that Republican strategists had acted without the careful planning that had characterized their previous campaigns.


The "controversy" about Palin's pregnant daughter and the hypocritical concern over her ability to both raise a large family and be vice president were instigated by a hostile media. The party rank and file were energized by the pick.


Still, Ms. Palin was a galvanizing force and continues to outdo all other Republicans in exciting the party's base. On Friday, it was even possible to see how her decision to exit the governorship could actually strengthen her populist, anti-government theme - and place her in the tradition of previous conservative leaders who have presented themselves not merely as professional politicians but as leaders of a movement.


It is true enough that during its period of ascendancy, the Republican Party has often depicted government as the enemy of conservative values.


These were arguments advanced by presidents like Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who helped bring the modern party into being. But both were also masters of accommodation, who built broad constituencies within the party and beyond. It was Mr. Reagan who most forcefully imposed "the Eleventh Commandment," which forbade Republicans from openly criticizing others in their party.


And after ten months of liberal media excoriation of Palin, Tanenhaus impressively managed to paintther Alaska governoras the aggressor, saying she "has made no secret of her displeasure with Republicans who differ with her." As if Republicans who differ from Palin have kept quiet? Did he even read Todd Purdum's hit piece, filled with anonymous sniping by staffers of failed candidate John McCain?


Tanenhaus even dragged Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol into the mix in an attempt to show everyone in the party was fighting everyone else.


Even this pretense of concord now seems gone. Ms. Palin has made no secret of her displeasure with Republicans who differ with her. And in what could be interpreted as supportive remarks Friday, one of her champions last year, William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, seemed to be extending his open conflict with Republicans who were quoted in the Vanity Fair article expressing reservations about her fitness to govern.