The Republican Future

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Unlike Paul Martin’s laughable claim that last summer’s federal election was the most important in Canadian history, the election now concluded in the United States with Republicans winning the presidency, the congress and the senate may well be a watershed in postwar history.

Everyone has commented on the “50-50 nation”, the fact that America is divided right down the middle politically today, but that is merely a moment in a massive historical shift that has been underway since the 1960s.

Back then Democrats outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1. Today they are virtually equal in terms of registered voters. Republicans control the majority of governorships, are dominant in the state legislatures, and control both houses of Congress and the presidency. This is a huge reversal.

This didn’t just happen to the Republicans — they made it happen as a matter of carefully crafted strategy. For example, they took control of many state legislatures, where congressional electoral districts in each state are defined. As a result, there are no more than maybe 25 congressional districts that are truly competitive, in the sense that either party can win them. In yesterday’s election the Republicans kept their House majority because they’ve granted themselves a huge electoral advantage there.

Just as importantly, the Republicans are now the party of ideas. All the ideas that matter now, whether it’s school choice, the war on terrorism, entitlement reform, tort law reform, free trade, deregulation, star wars, or tax cuts, all are Republican issues. There is no greater term of political abuse in America today than to be a “liberal”, an advocate of the old tax-and-spend vision of the Democrats.

The reason that this election may be so seminal is that the Republicans’ next step will be a frontal assault on the very foundations of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition. In the political race, the Republicans have not merely pulled even with the Democrats, but are edging ahead. Four more years of a Bush administration would likely see that marginal advantage become a decisive one.

The strategy will be a two-pronged one. Drawing a page from Margaret Thatcher’s “property-owning democracy”, where the average voter is given a much greater material stake in the success of the private economy, the Republicans will shift decisively away from state provision of many entitlements. In their place will be tax-assisted savings, such as medical savings accounts, already enshrined in last year’s health care legislation. Social security pensions will be next.

Then there will be the direct attack on the Democrats’ political base. The Democrats attract much of their support and funding from three key groups: organized labour, teachers and trial lawyers. The Republicans have all three in their sights.

Drawing inspiration from the “right-to-work” states, where no one may be compelled to join a trade union, the Republicans will go after the many privileges that federal legislation currently confers on unions, allowing individuals to opt out or ensure that their membership dues cannot be used for political purposes of which they disapprove. Unionized federal civil servants will find many of their jobs contracted out from under them to private providers. Teachers will have their fangs drawn by increased federal support for school choice, charter schools and tuition vouchers. And the trial lawyers, the largest single source of funding for the Democrats, will find their fortunes under siege by reform reducing the use of the American legal system to milk large corporations of millions on flimsy pretexts.

The Republicans are on the march, and the Democrats have largely abandoned the Clintonian legacy that made them briefly competitive. Canadians waiting for the Democrats to save them from a Republican future are in for a long wait.

This comment is based on Brian Crowley’s October 24th column published in La Presse.