Back in 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's political savior, Karl Rove, was performing nothing short of an electoral resurrection, running around South Carolina calling Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) an unpatriotic, illegitimate-black-baby-fathering Manchurian Candidate.
Who could have guessed that eight years later, the senator from Arizona would be dedicating the remainder of his political life to finishing Karl Rove's good works on Earth?
And yet, as McCain runs around the country this fall, calling Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) an unpatriotic, socialistic terrorist-paller-around-with, it seems he's taken it upon himself to complete what should be called the Rove Realignment.
No, not the once-envisioned "rolling realignment," under which the Republican Party would add to its base of white Evangelical Protestants, bringing in Hispanics, culturally conservative African Americans, and economically vulnerable whites—those who supported Medicare Part D and opposed gay marriage in equal measure—to create a "permanent" Republican majority that would last at least a generation.
McCain's working on the other realignment: The one where eight years of fiscal recklessness and cultural warfare alienates swing voters and withers the Republican Party until the very base of the conservative movement cracks in half—splitting a coalition that has endured since the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964.
That coalition between social conservatives and economic libertarians (who tend to be socially moderate to liberal), served the GOP well from 1964 to 2006. It gave the party eight years of Ronald Reagan and 12 years of a Republican Congress. But the Bush years have proven to be one long pulling apart. And, in a matter of days, we may just see the final snap.
The Cato Institute has done excellent work over the last few years tracking the shift in the libertarian vote—the roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the American public that can be categorized as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
Based on an analysis of the American National Election Studies, Cato found that between 2000 and 2004, there was a substantial flight of libertarians away from the Republican Party and toward the Democrats. While libertarians preferred Bush by a margin of 52 points over Al Gore in 2000, that margin shrank to 21 points in 2004, when many libertarians—disaffected by the Iraq war, massive GOP spending increases, and the campaign against gay marriage—switched to John Kerry.
Polling on libertarian voters is somewhat sparse during elections, but there are a couple of data points and some broad trends that can give us an idea of where things stand now. An early October Zogby Interactive poll found that self-identified libertarians (about 6 percent of the poll's sample) give McCain only 36 percent of their vote, lower than the 45 percent and 42 percent Zogby found them giving Bush in the last two elections. The libertarian voters claim to be defecting mainly to Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr and other third-party candidates, not to Obama. A Gallup poll conducted in September, which identified libertarian-minded voters with a series of ideological questions about the role of government in the economy and society (pegging them at around 23 percent of the electorate), found that only 43 percent of these voters plan pull the lever for McCain, slightly fewer than did for Bush in 2004. The Gallup poll also finds a significant uptick in libertarians planning to vote third-party, with 3.5 percent supporting Barr.
At the broader level, McCain's problems with the libertarian side of the conservative base are evident in how he's faring regionally. While the GOP can win the South without libertarian voters, as McCain is doing handily, it can't win the "leave-me-alone" Interior West without a healthy portion of them. And even before the economic crisis took over the national headlines in mid-September, the three up-for-grabs Mountain states—which by themselves, when added to the 2004 Kerry states, hold enough electoral votes to swing the election to Obama—looked grim for McCain. New Mexico (Bush by 1) has looked solid for Obama all year; Colorado (Bush by 5), likewise, has hardly deviated from an Obama lead in the RealClearPolitics average this election season. Only Nevada (Bush by 3) has seen the advantage teeter back and forth (it's now leaning Obama).
Why would libertarians abandon McCain? After all, they believe in low taxes—and McCain is the one promising those. And if they're concerned about social issues, well, McCain's never shown much of a stomach for cultural warfare.
That is, of course, until now.
The real McCain, whoever that is or was, may still believe that major swathes of the Religious Right represent "agents of intolerance" in our politics. But he has decided to stake both his election and the Republican Party's future upon them—from the barely coded racial refrain of "Who is Barack Obama?," to the rallies with shouts of "terrorist" and "kill him," to the corrosive choice of pipeline-prayer Sarah Palin as his running mate and heir apparent.
Tax cuts or no tax cuts, a party that can be roused in time of deep crisis only by fear and tribalism—a party that a supposed moderate is now deeding to its most extreme elements—can scarcely serve as a safe home to liberty or the voters who cherish it.
Two years ago, I wrote a book imploring the Republican Party not to follow its worst elements off a cliff—not to evolve, in short, into an insular party with little-to-no appeal outside of the rural, the southern, the Evangelical. As the McCain campaign flames out in a ball of Rovian disgrace, scorching the center in an attempt to fire up the base, it's difficult to reach any other conclusion than that the battle for the soul of the Republican Party has been lost.
Ryan Sager is the author of The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.