The two great Republican general-election victories of the recent past grew out of intraparty insurrections. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, fresh from challenging a sitting Republican president in 1976, ran against a party establishment represented in various ways by Howard Baker, George Bush, and John Connally. A decade later, Newt Gingrich led an insurrection, first against the Bush budget deal and then against Bob Michel and the Republican congressional establishment, which culminated in the Republican landslide of 1994. Now we are witnessing a third insurrection. John McCain is taking on the Republican establishment. In New Hampshire, he crushed it.
At first glance, the McCain insurgency seems nothing like the other two. Reagan and Gingrich led ideological crusades. They attacked the Republican establishment from the right, and the ground had been prepared by a conservative movement which first won the war of ideas. The McCain insurgency is not ideological. It does feature certain themes and principles, but they are not yet fully developed into a governing agenda.
But if one abandons the premise that insurrections have to be ideological, it becomes clear that in some ways the McCain insurgency does resemble its two predecessors. Like Reagan and Gingrich, McCain makes the corporate and lobbyist types nervous. The corporate elites have invested heavily in George W. Bush, and they must have been chugging Tums after New Hampshire.
Furthermore, like the other two insurgents, McCain is trying to bring new and unlikely blood into Republican ranks. Reagan appealed to the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt and brought in the Reagan Democrats, along with intellectuals like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett who had been Democrats all their lives. In Gingrich's Republican landslide of 1994, eight million Americans voted Republican in House elections for the first time. And for better or worse, Gingrich tried to import a whole raft of ideas and people that were not part of the conservative canon: thinkers ranging from Marvin Olasky on the right to Heidi and Alvin Toffler on the left, through Edwards Deming and all the rest of that Third Wave zoological futurology.
Rather than Reagan Democrats, this election season has produced the McCain Independents. Many of these new Republican primary voters seem ill-suited to the GOP. But that's what insurgencies do. They expand the base. They topple the old establishment by bringing in new people. They create new alliances within the party. That's why 1980 and 1994 were winning years for the GOP in the fall; that's why the orthodox Republican campaigns of 1992 and 1996 were unsuccessful.
Finally, like Reagan and Gingrich, McCain attacks a Republican establishment that has already rotted from within. John McCain could cruise to such a massive win in New Hampshire because the Republican establishment has ossified. It cannot save a faltering campaign no matter how well funded it might be, no matter how many firewalls it claims to erect. It is possible that a revitalized Bush could save himself -- but the establishment's weakness has been exposed, and some other insurgency will eventually take advantage of it.
The current Republican establishment comprises two factions that were once rivals, the "pragmatic" corporate establishment and the "ideological" conservative movement. But both have suffered crushing defeats in the past decade. In their weakness, they now cling warily to each other. Last year when George W. Bush looked inevitable, they hoped to save themselves by riding his coattails to power. Now, as Bush has faltered, they hope that together they still have enough clout to propel him to the White House.
The corporate establishment suffered its crushing defeat back in 1990, with the tax-hiking budget deal. By breaking the "no new taxes pledge," President Bush and his senior advisers -- Richard Darman, Nicholas Brady, and the rest of the Republican pragmatists -- sloughed off the Reagan legacy and forfeited the trust of the American people. They went on to run a typical establishment campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992. Their failure opened the way for conservatives -- led by Gingrich, who had dissented from the budget deal -- to take over the party. They did, and seemed to achieve a historic triumph in 1994.
But that triumph was short lived. The catastrophic budget shutdown of late 1995 was the conservative movement's Waterloo. Bill Clinton seized the initiative. The Republicans were thrown back on their heels, saddled with a profoundly unpopular leader, and spent the next couple of years plagued by self-doubt and internal power struggles.
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