As their convention in Minnesota gets under way, Republicans are feeling a little better. Barack Obama hasn't blown the presidential race wide open, as many expected. The McCain campaign's charge that he's a celebrity, not a tested leader--widely mocked at first--seems to have caught on. In some key states, McCain may even be gaining ground.
Good news for the GOP, right? Actually, the exact opposite. Of all the disasters that have befallen the Republican Party in recent years, the most cataclysmic may be about to unfold: John McCain might win.
To understand why McCain's election would be so awful for the GOP, start with the obvious: the party is flat on its back. According to the Pew Research Center, through August 2008, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Republican is lower than in any of the previous 15 years. The party is probably headed for another round of deep losses in the House and Senate. Asked recently by the Pew Center to choose between a generic Democrat and a generic Republican for Congress, registered voters under 30 gave the Democrats a 22-point lead.
How can Republicans come back from the dead? In one of two ways. First, they could elect a Republican President who passes popular conservative legislation, as Ronald Reagan did in 1981, thus energizing the GOP faithful and swelling their ranks. Alternatively, they could savage a Democratic President who tries to pass controversial liberal legislation, as Newt Gingrich did to Bill Clinton in 1993 and '94.
If Obama wins, scenario No. 2 becomes a live option. Democrats have a history of overreaching when they win huge majorities. Franklin Roosevelt did so after his re-election landslide in 1936; so did Lyndon Johnson after 1964. Obama could as well. With big majorities in the House and Senate, he'd probably take another run at universal health care, which is what helped prompt the Gingrich revolution in 1994. He could hike taxes and impose tough new environmental regulations on business. He might preside over a messy withdrawal from Iraq and perhaps see Iran complete development of a nuclear weapon. Any one of these things could pump some life into the near catatonic GOP.
If McCain wins, of course, scenario No. 2 is impossible. The problem is that so is scenario No. 1. There's simply no way a McCain Administration could pass the kind of large-scale conservative initiative--think of Reagan's big tax cut in 1981 or George W. Bush's in 2001--that fires up the GOP base. Facing large and aggressive Democratic majorities in Congress, McCain will have to drink deeply from the well of bipartisan compromise if he wants to get anything done. The alternative will be veto upon veto as he tries to remain ideologically pure.
But that doesn't sound like McCain. After all, he hasn't always been a conservative stalwart. He opposed Bush's tax cuts in 2001; he has teamed up with Democrats on immigration; he's greener than many of his fellow Republicans when it comes to global warming; and he has often been perceived as halfhearted on the cultural issues beloved by the Christian right. The thing he cares about most is foreign policy, and he might well give Democrats much of what they want on domestic issues if they let him and David Petraeus run the show in Iraq.
This kind of coalition government might be good for the country, but it would be disastrous for the GOP. If you think Republicans are demoralized now, wait until McCain stamps the GOP label on higher taxes, tougher regulation and looser rules on immigration. The best precedent is what happened when George H.W. Bush cut a deal with Democrats to raise taxes in 1990. The result was Pat Buchanan's challenge in the 1992 primaries, followed by Ross Perot's in the general election, which together cut the Republican Party's heart out. Already Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson are unhappy with today's GOP. If McCain wins and governs significantly to the left of George W. Bush, the party's meltdown in the early 1990s will seem like child's play.
The bald reality is this: the public is more eager for activist government than it has been in years. American politics is moving left no matter who wins in 2008. The real question is whether Obama becomes the face of that leftward shift--which will remind Republicans why they loathe Democrats--or McCain does, in which case Republicans will increasingly loathe themselves. If McCain loses in 2008, the GOP will eventually come back and win. If he wins, on the other hand, they will lose and lose and lose.
Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations