No Comment — March 1, 2010, 11:05 am

The Party of George Wallace?

In the wood-paneled chamber that was the scene of Friday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, I listened to Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, the Republican ranking member, drone on in his soft drawl. John Yoo and Jay Bybee had done the nation a great service, he said, and their critics calling for accountability were all from the “far left.” Sessions went on to burnish the reputation of David Margolis, whom he remembered as a “long-haired youth” at the Justice Department three decades ago. Texas senator John Cornyn chimed in making almost identical remarks. The duo, the only Republicans who showed up that morning, well represent the core G.O.P. constituency, Evangelical white males over forty from the states of the old Confederacy. They were among the nine Republican senators who voted against John McCain’s bill that outlawed torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in 2005. They reflect a brand of reactionary Republicanism that stands far to the right of Reagan, and is a sharp repudiation of the legacy of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. Are they the party’s future?

Many of the G.O.P.’s best thinkers realize that, while the two-party system all but guarantees the Republicans more times at bat, this is not the best platform from which to win national elections in a nation that is increasingly diverse and less enamored of the religious right. If there is an exciting new development in the G.O.P., then it’s Sarah Palin—after all, she’s youthful, vigorous, and from far outside the South. But Jonathan Rauch, writing in the National Journal, has a different take on the situation.

The history of the modern Republican Party in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.

Rauch then does some side-by-side comparisons of Palin’s message with Wallace’s from 1968:

Palin: “Voters are sending a message.” Wallace: “Send them a message!”

Palin: “The soul of this movement is the people, everyday Americans, who grow our food and run our small businesses, who teach our kids and fight our wars…. The elitists who denounce this movement, they just don’t want to hear the message.” Wallace: “They’ve looked down their noses at the average man on the street too long. They’ve looked [down] at the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker….”

Palin: “We need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.” Wallace: “We have a professor — I’m not talking about all professors, but here’s an issue in the campaign — we got these pseudo-theoreticians, and these pseudo-social engineers…. They want to tell you how to do.”

Palin: “What does he [Obama] actually seek to accomplish…? The answer is to make government bigger; take more of your money; give you more orders from Washington.” Wallace: “They say, ‘We’ve gotta write a guideline. We’ve gotta tell you when to get up in the morning. We’ve gotta tell you when to go to bed at night.’ “

I am not convinced that Rauch is really describing a new phenomenon, however. Lee Atwater sold Bush père on a Wallace-style appeal to populism in the 1988 campaign, and the same sort of outreach, focused specifically on the religious right, has been right at the center of Karl Rove’s strategy. It really didn’t take long after 1968 for the G.O.P. to see the George Wallace voter as its natural target, and the reorientation of the G.O.P. into an increasingly white, Evangelical, and Southern party followed.

Rauch says this is the road to ruin for the G.O.P. “By becoming George Wallace’s party, the GOP is abandoning rather than embracing conservatism, and it is thereby mortgaging both its integrity and its political future. Wallaceism was not sufficiently mainstream or coherent to sustain a national party in 1968, and the same is true today.” But the G.O.P. does seem committed to this course, and its highest profile spokesmen—the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks–seem to be pressing it on.

It seems worth noting that Wallace himself was smart enough to recognize that the brand of populist politics he espoused in 1968 would lead straight into a political cul-de-sac. He spent the rest of his career broadening his appeal to blacks, the uneducated, and the disenfranchised, with the result that he became a thorn in the side of the G.O.P. and a new sort of populist. The question in my mind is not whether the G.O.P. is consciously evoking Wallace—Rauch is correct, they are—but whether they have studied Wallace closely enough to identify the aspects of his career that could help them. If they did this, they might quickly come to very different takes on healthcare reform and education, and the nation might move to a much more positive political dialogue in which a broad consensus could be reached on some populist issues.

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