My shipmate at the dinner table passed me a note. It read: “Ship of fools or voyage of the damned?”
It was quite an acute question. We were dining off Ocho Rios in Jamaica on board MS Nieuw Amsterdam, two among 600 conservatives, readers and writers of the National Review magazine, who are enjoying a postelection cruise, or maybe the better phrase would be “conducting a postmortem” following the recent death of the Mitt Romney campaign and, arguably, the deaths of the Republican Party and the American conservative movement as well.
It is, surprisingly, quite a jolly wake. The atmosphere is not quite as buoyant as on the 2008 post-election cruise when I reported in The Globe and Mail a mood of “relief” and even merriment among the NR faithful and asked rhetorically, “What right have these people to laugh so uninhibitedly?”
The 2010 election provided the answer: They did not think their exile from power was permanent. Following the defeat of Mr. Romney – whom many expected to win – they’re more worried that there are signs of a long-term decline of the right: for instance, that the GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. That’s not so much a sign as a neon advertisment.
Even so, the mood is wry and thoughtful rather than despairing. And the late-night political cabaret still attracts 600 enthusiasts even in the absence this year of Canadian cabaret superstar Mark Steyn, whose book After America is the kind of comically despairing extended riff on the coming defeats of Uncle Sam’s conservative offspring that would have played right into the NR passengers’ mood of cheery pessimism.
Jonah Goldberg, another NR cabaret superstar, is more cheerful – at least about the long-term prospects for conservative Republicanism. He points out that the critics were predicting its early demise, bereft of any achievement, from its birth. Robert Novak wrote that “the long descent of the Republican Party into irrelevance, defeat, and perhaps eventual disappearance” had finally begun in 1976, just four years before Ronald Reagan entered the White House. Such predictions almost always fail. As Christian political consultant Ralph Reed pointed out in one panel session, political parties are highly adaptive semi-biological mechanisms. They rarely die; they mutate.
And that’s where the question came in: In what direction will Republicans mutate?
Those who think the Nieuw Amsterdam is a voyage of the damned (politically speaking, that is; the food and accommodations are of a very high standard) fear that demographic change in America is turning the GOP into a permanent minority party of married, religious and older white people. Columnist Mona Charen argues on that basis that the GOP should adopt a more liberal and welcoming immigration policy and, in general, strive to be more multiethnic and Hispanic-friendly in its appeal.
The first half of Ms. Charen’s advice is questionable. Immigration is only one issue of interest to Hispanic Americans – otherwise, they vote on the same issues as other Americans. U.S. immigration policy is already liberal and immigration rates high (and Mr. Romney proposed raising legal immigration further.) Legalizing illegal immigrants would be an incentive for others to follow the same path – and because such migrants are overwhelmingly low-income workers, they would swell the Democratic column rather than the GOP’s. And it would weaken the economic position of low-paid Americans, white and ethnic.
Her second point is good advice, but Republicans can only fail if they offer minority Americans a milder version of the Democrats’ ethnic balkanization that treats them not as fully-fledged Americans but as permanent minorities. Crafting a new “Americanization” policy, however, will take time – and ingenuity.
Fortunately for them, the Republicans have some time. Although current demographic change is slowly working against them, the white vote will remain a clear majority for maybe another 40 years. In addition, there’s an electoral bloc already swinging their way that failed to turn out in sufficient numbers last week: namely, the white working class that used to be the solid centre of the Democratic coalition. Its drift rightward makes the GOP competitive still. And that group shares many of the ambitions and insecurities that animate most middle-class voters in the ethnic voting blocs that the Democrats claim for their “rising new electorate.”
Columnist Ramesh Ponnuru focused on this latter fact. After a rigorous analysis of the various possible reasons why the Republicans were losing the great American middle class, he concluded very persuasively that they had ignored or played down policies to help these voters deal with their problems from high college fees to rising medical costs and concentrated too much on the interests of corporate America and the rich. As a result, they were seen as unsympathetic to ordinary Americans.
Sort of obvious? Right. Folly not to have acted on this analysis before? Alas, yes. Can the GOP adopt policies that address these concerns now? Sure.
So we’re on a ship of fools, after all. What a relief! Waiter, another martini.
John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.