Monday, February 11, 2008

Whither the Republican Party?

John McCain’s imminent annunciation as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate has set off a vigorous debate within the party. His primary and caucus victories are attributed to support from independent voters, crossover Democrats, and moderate Republicans. A McCain victory in November that rests on these voters means, in the view of some outspoken conservatives, a return to dominance of the old-line, establishment, moderate, Rockefeller wing of the party. To conservatives, McCain is the third stage in the undoing of Ronald Reagan’s legacy. The first was George H. W. Bush’s "kinder, gentler America" and the second was George W. Bush’s "compassionate conservatism."

Some prominent conservatives have stated their preference for a McCain defeat in November, which would enable them to try to rebuild the party on its conservative foundations.

In this regard, Canadian history may be instructive. The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (PCP) was a party with a center-right stance on economic issues and a centrist stance on social issues. In modern times, the PCP formed the government from 1957 to 1963, from 1979 to 1980, and from 1984 to 1993. In the twelve elections for the House of Commons held between 1957 and 1988, the PCP never won fewer than 72 seats and on two occasions won more than 200 (308 members serve in the Commons).

Following the 1993 election, the PCP went into a decade-long decline and was formally dissolved on December 7, 2003, when it merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the new Conservative Party. The PCP had won a mere 2 seats in 1993, down from 169 in 1988, and a not much more respectable 20 and 12 respectively in 1997 and 2000. The explanations for the PCP’s collapse in 1993 and its decade-long exile in the political wilderness are attributable to its emphasis on socially progressive policies, large persistent government deficits, the introduction of a value added tax, the loss of support in Quebec, and the departure of conservative supporters in the four Western provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to form a new party, the Canadian Alliance, which reflected the older conservative roots of the PCP.

In the 2006 Canada federal election, the new Conservative Party won a plurality of seats, 40.3%. It formed a minority government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, cofounder of the new party. In accord with its philosophy, the Conservative Party government cut the rate of value added tax.

The almost complete obliteration of the PCP in 1993 until its merger with the Canadian Alliance in 2003 and return to power in 2006, suggests that the Republican Party perhaps needs to undergo a similar defeat under its progressive wing for the party to reestablish its conservative roots.

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