Romney’s defeat contains valuable lessons for the Liberal Party argues Brandon Welsh.
In popular political history Barry Goldwater was an extreme right wing zealot who led the Republican Party to a landslide defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson. To those with a more nuanced understanding of American political history, Goldwater was actually a saviour of the Republican Party and paved the way for the electoral success of Nixon and then Reagan.
It is certainly true that Goldwater was confined to electoral oblivion by Johnson but in defeating Nelson Rockefeller in the primaries Goldwater also saved the Republican Party from becoming nothing more than a liberal organ of the eastern Brahmin establishment.
If the liberal Rockefeller had been successful it is likely he would have also suffered a resounding defeat in 1964. What is also likely is that Nixon would not have been the candidate in ’68 and Ronald Reagan would have only ever been Governor of California. The conservative cause would have been sunk.
Although conservative Republicans owe a debt to Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan had the political and ideological smarts to carry the conservative torch and turn it into electoral success. In the 1972 presidential election the AFL-CIO (the US version of the ACTU) declared its official position with respect to whether it supported/opposed Nixon or McGovern as neutral. Given the AFL-CIO has always been strongly Democrat aligned, this was a momentous achievement on Nixon’s part. Nixon knew that the key to his success was what he called the ‘silent majority’ which was made up of a large chunk of blue-collar Americans.
Like Nixon, Reagan recognised the importance of blue-collar voters to his electoral success, the so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’ were both socially and economically conservative. When President, Reagan was not afraid to bail out Chrysler and put up trade barriers to slow down what was then a flood of cheap Japanese auto imports. Obama would follow his lead 30 years later with the bailout of GM.
Fast-forward to 2012 and what can be called the ‘Rockefeller eastern establishment wing’ of the Republican Party has become dominant and with this dominance has come electoral defeat.
Recent Republican Presidential candidates, such as Romney, McCain and Dole, who were all anointed by the eastern establishment, thought the road to electoral success was assured by moving to the liberal centre. George Bush – for all of his political foibles – appears to have been an aberration. Bush never felt the need to move to the centre, he campaigned and governed from the right and won two elections. It is however telling that even he was at the mercy of the eastern establishment with his political svengali Karl Rove being a big Romney supporter and an ardent hater of Gingrich and Palin.
There will be much made of the claims that Romney and the Republican Party were/are victims of the changing demographics of the United States, ie. the decline of the white majority and the rise in the number of Hispanics and other migrant voting minorities. This is nothing more than a convenient excuse used by the eastern establishment to explain away their electoral failures.
The reality that the Republican Party needs to face up to is that they have abjectly failed to attract blue-collar working class and aspirational voters. It makes not one jot of difference what their race is. The current Republican Party have betrayed the social and economic conservative traditions of the republican cause in the misguided belief that their only hope is to appeal to the centre and so called independents. During the campaign there was a devastating video of Romney doing the rounds from when he ran against Ted Kennedy for a Senate seat in 1992. In the video Romney declares that he was no supporter of Reagan. He lost that Senate race. Obama had it right when he labelled Romney as simply the candidate for Bain & Company.
If Presidents Reagan and Nixon were both alive today they would surely despair at what Republicanism has become and the havoc that the eastern establishment has wreaked on the Grand Old Party. Rockefeller on the other hand would be nodding with approval, secure in the knowledge that any remnant of conservative vestiges within the Republican Party had been killed off.
And therein lies the lessons for the Liberal Party. The undoubted political strengths of Tony Abbott are his social and economic conservatism. He connects with the concerns of those Australians who live beyond the end of the tram tracks and who are preoccupied with job security, paying the mortgage, getting ahead financially and raising loving families.
Gay marriage, fighting climate change, winning a temporary seat on the UN Security Council and free trade agreements with China are simply not on their radar.
These people were also known as the Howard battlers and not surprisingly when John Howard lost their support, he also lost government. The polls show that Abbott has managed to win this group back to the Liberal Party, this has been no small feat and to those who are urging him to become more positive (ie. lay off the carbon tax) or for the Liberal Party to be more centrist (ie. make Australia’s version of Nelson Rockefeller aka Malcolm Turnbull the leader), Abbott should politely point to the result of this week’s presidential election.