A Gallup poll released this week shows a precipitous dropoff in the number of Americans who identify themselves as Republicans. The decline started in 2001, when 45 percent of Americans self-identified as Democrats and 44 percent said they were Republicans. The split is now 53 percent Democrat, 39 percent Republican. The real danger signal in the poll for the GOP is the nearly 20 percent swing toward the Democrats in the 18- to 29-year-old demographic.
So what are Republican leaders doing about this threat to their party's viability? What new ideas are they embracing? Who will lead the party into the future? Well, that's a big part of the problem: There are no new national Republican leaders. The cable talk shows are filled with the same graying white men saying the same things they've been saying since, well, 2001. Fewer and fewer voters are buying it. The GOP risks becoming the Chrysler Corporation of political parties.
Whenever a Republican strays from the prescribed socially conservative, pro-Bush, pro-torture dogma or dares to suggest that Rush Limbaugh could be wrong about something, they are slapped down or "excommunicated" or forced to apologize to El Rushbo. When Dick Cheney says a draft-dodging windbag like Limbaugh is a better Republican than former general, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, your party has a problem.
Ideological purity doesn't work for major parties in the U.S. The Democrats learned that with George McGovern in 1972. The Green Party, the Libertarians, and other fringe groups can tip the balance of power, but they seldom wield it. The key is putting together a coalition that approximates 50 percent of the electorate. To use a hoary cliche — you need to build a big tent. (Unless you live in Tennessee, where our state legislators are busy trying to drag us all into their crazy-sauce pup tent.)
The 9/11 attacks gave the Rove Republican machine the cover it needed to create a (bare) majority coalition of religious and social conservatives, traditional Republicans, and independent voters. That coalition has collapsed. If Republicans keep purging people like Powell and genuflecting to the likes of Limbaugh and Cheney, their constituency will mostly consist of people who are, according to the poll, over 65, white, socially conservative (anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion), less-educated, Southern, fundamentalist Christian, rural, gun-rights activists. Not exactly the way the country is trending.