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The Republicans after St Paul

Bushmccaintopper The US Republicans leave their Convention in much better heart than most dared to hope. Their President has had lower approval ratings for a longer period than any ever previously recorded (George W Bush was mentioned sixteen times more frequently by Democrats in Denver than by Republicans in St Paul).  Less than two years ago the Grand Old Party lost control of Congress, Iraq was going badly wrong, the Democrats were raising way more money and none of their presidential candidates was inspiring the base.

Most pundits still expect Barack Obama to beat John McCain on 4th November but the Republicans no longer fear a rout. Since Sarah Palin's arrival on the scene - particularly after her barnstorming acceptance speech - many hope for victory and the McCain warchest is at last filling with dollars.

It would be a remarkable achievement for the Republicans to rehabilitate themselves while they still occupy the White House.  Most parties are unable to understand the need for change until the electorate has voted them out. The midterm thumpin' they received in November 2006 has forced them to bring forward their 'modernisation'.

What form has 'modernisation' taken?

Mccain_smiling John McCain was adopted as their nominee: Senator McCain was not popular among core Republican voters. His relationship with Bush has been uneasy since the latter defeated him in a brutal battle for the 2000 nomination. Since appearing together at a fundraiser in May this year it is reported that they haven't spoken. Bush has voted against the Republican majority on tax, campaign finance reform and immigration. Many rightists of the Coulter tendency vowed never to support him. Realising that a conventional Republican candidate was unlikely to prosper the sensible majority in the GOP swallowed hard and picked McCain. Adjustments in his own positions - on tax and oil exploration in particular - made him an easier pill to digest.


McCain picked Sarah Palin: McCain's choice of Alaska's Governor as his running mate has sprinkled some stardust over the Republican brand. Nearly as many Americans watched her acceptance speech as watched Barack Obama's speech a week earlier (and he had commanded a near record TV audience). For months and months the Democrats' energy levels have bested the Republicans. On fundraising, turnout at events and participation in primary voting, all of the enthusiasm was on the left.  Sarah Palin has changed that. The GOP base is enthused for the first time . Her social conservatism and reformist credentials have played a part for sure but most important has been her intrinsic star quality. She's attractive, fun, sassy and real.  Palin has emerged as a heroine of her party, whatever now happens in this election.

Picture_1 Brought Iraq back from the brink: Retreat, retreat, retreat was the near unanimous advice of the foreign policy establishment at the end of 2006. But George W Bush took the lonely decision to advance. He appointed General David Petraeus to lead a surge of 20,000 extra troops into Iraq and a change of tactics. John McCain had been recommending this change of approach for two years and stood by President Bush at the time - even though many predicted that it would kill his presidential ambitions. Iraq remains a fragile state but Iraq is no longer the winning issue that Obama had hoped. The success of the surge and the Democrat nominee's unwillingness to recant his opposition to it, have brought his own judgment into question.

A reformist message: There's still much in the McCain message that is very familiar Republican fare.  The Arizona Senator opposes abortion, supports gun rights, wants to cut federal spending and is a national security hawk. But added to this mix is a belief in man-made global warming, an opposition to torture and a more positive view of immigration.  Sarah Palin also reinforces other potentially very potent qualities: a track record of taking a stand against Republican excesses; opposition to pork and unnecessary spending; shunning of perks; and straight-talking.

Over coming years the Republicans will probably need to go further still:

Bushmehlman It must realise that tax and crime aren't such potent political weapons: Eleven years into a high taxing Labour government the British voter may be hungry for lower taxes (and a tougher approach to crime) but these are not the top issues for American voters.  As David Lidington has recorded, former Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman (pictured) has said:

"Today, the party should focus on quality of life issues: infrastructure, energy and education .Family values voters would (as the Virginia gubernatorial elections showed) vote for a candidate who promised to fix the transport system so they could get home quicker to their children over one offering tax cuts."

If Obama-Biden win office for four or eight years, however, and team up with a Democrat-controlled Congress to deliver step increases in spending the GOP nominee in 2012 or 2016 might find tax a potent weapon again.

Reach the 'chattering classes': Although the GOP needs to do more to appeal to blue collar workers in the way described by Ken Mehlman (and more extensively by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in their 'Grand New Party' book), David Frum has warned of a growing estrangement with higher income voters.  The Times' Daniel Finkelstein has also written about this. Without an interest in green and other quality of life issues - as trailblazed, for example, by David Cameron - the Republicans will struggle to build a majority coalition.

Make peace with gay Americans: It would be wrong for Republicans to listen to those who say America is becoming more socially liberal in every respect.  Younger voters are at least as worried about abortion but a very conservative perspective is no longer electorally tenable in certain areas.  Although Republicans may wish to defend a traditional interpretation of marriage they would be wise to be more open to same sex partnerships and the rights that go with them.

The worse thing that could happen for the Republicans is for them to be defeated in November and blame McCain's reform agenda for the defeat.  Romney-ism is not the answer.  The future of the Republican Party is the anti-establishment outlook of Sarah Palin (Alaska), the blue-collar awareness of Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota) and the fresh thinking of Bobby Jindal (Louisiana).


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