Like a drunk after a decade-long bender, the Republican Party needs to hit bottom before it can bounce back.
The good news is that it can’t go much lower. The numbers are ugly: Ten years ago, New York had a Republican governor and a Republican mayor of the state’s largest city. The county executives of both Nassau and Suffolk Counties were Republicans. The GOP controlled the State Senate and held at least one of the U.S. Senate seats for decades.
Now, the New York GOP is virtually without power in the state. There are nearly twice as many registered Democrats in our state as Republicans, while third-party and nonaffiliated voters almost equal GOP registration.
As the national Republican Party has grown more socially conservative and less fiscally responsible, voters throughout the northeast have been abandoning it. New England doesn’t have a single Republican congressman left. New York is down to three – Long Island’s Peter King, John McHugh of upstate Pierrepont Manor and the just-elected Chris Lee of Buffalo.
Exit polls in the 2008 election reflect this widespread rejection: McCain – a centrist Republican who should have played well in New York – lost Empire State moderates 68 to 31.
To revive, the Republican Party has to reconnect with centrist voters and find common cause with independents, rather than running further to the right. The laws of biology apply: Republicans must adapt, migrate or die. In New York, they cannot hope to find more voters in the northern or western regions of the state or on the far-right of the ideological spectrum. Instead, the party needs to get competitive again in suburban and urban races; it needs to field candidates who reflect the real diversity of our state, and it needs to attract voters in the common-sense center.
There is a great and even heroic tradition of centrist New York Republicans, beginning with Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, Teddy Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia, Tom Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and Rudy Giuliani. The common denominator: In New York, Republican means Reform.
That’s the mantra that Republicans need to carry into the future. That means purging the corrupt power brokers and party bosses who have ruined the reputation of the party that used to stand in contrast to the graft from Democratic machines like Tammany Hall. That means learning from the mistakes of the Pataki era, when too often fiscal conservative principles were abandoned in the pursuit of holding on to power. It means working with Gov. David Paterson to cut costs in the short-run, while offering a bigger-picture long-term contrast that favors growing our way out of our current problems through entrepreneurial activity, lower taxes and targeted investments that improve our competitiveness with other states.
One of the prime costs in coming years will be the state’s pension obligations to public-sector unions. Democrats won’t have the political freedom to stand up to this special interest; Republicans can and must. Here in New York, where the impacts of the financial crisis will be felt deeply and for a long time, Republicans can help reconnect fiscal conservatism with fiscal responsibility.
New York Republicans have another opportunity to revive their brand and help modernize the national party by recruiting candidates who are African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American. It’s a national scandal that the Party of Lincoln has no real depth of diversity on its bench. It needs to articulate a competing philosophy of individual responsibility, economic opportunity, safe streets, legal immigration and assimilation as an alternative to balkanized multiculturalism, special-interest spending and the dependence of the welfare state.
And because traditionalist social conservatives do not have the influence they do in the South, New York is the best place for big-tent Republicans to reconnect with libertarians, favoring equal rights for gays and a woman’s right to choose, bringing a new consistency to the party’s oft-professed belief in expanding individual freedom.
The bottom line is that the New York Republican Party can’t sink much lower. We are close to living in a one-party state, and that’s not healthy for democracy. New York Republicans have an opportunity to rebuild themselves as a party of freedom, political reform and fiscal discipline – and in so doing, they may just be able to lead the way for the national party’s rebirth.