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Moving To the Right, Without Direction

Today's Washington Post features a big new poll of self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Unsurprisingly, these voters don't like Barack Obama, don't like the general direction of the country, and don't want their leaders to help enact health care reform legislation (not that they are in any danger of doing so).

The two findings most worth paying attention to are (1) yet another confirmation that Republicans are undergoing a rightward shift; and (2) the complete lack of a consensus about Republican leadership.

On the ideological front, there's been a modest but revealing shift in the composition of the Republican rank-and-file since the last time the Post polled them, in 2007. Asked if they regard themselves as liberal, moderate, conservative, or very conservative, GOPers chose this last category, the most extreme available, more than ever. In June of 2007, self-identified liberals (11% of the total) and moderates (24%) together outnumbered those insisting on calling themselves "very conservative" (30%) by five percentage points. Now the "very conservative" are up to 32%, while "moderates" have declined to 22% and "liberals" have been nearly halved, to 6%. Overall, "conservative" GOPers currently overwhelm "moderate" GOPers by nearly a three-to-one margin. This is in sharp contrast to the ideological profile of the Democratic Party, in which the number of "moderates" equals and usually exceeds self-identified "liberals." The overwhelming ideological impetus in the Republican Party is centrifugal, not centripetal.

The second finding of note is that today's GOPers have no agreement whatsoever about where to look for leadership. Offered an open-ended question about "the one person [who] best reflects the core values of the Republican Party," nobody receives over 18%, and 8% insist "there is no leader." The last presidential nominee, John McCain, does respectfully well at 13%, though nobody really thinks of him as the future of the GOP, and his running-mate, Sarah Palin, runs first at 18%, out of a combination of celebrity and her special appeal to social issue extremists. After that, no one scores in double digits. The congressional leaders, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, each weigh in at a booming one percent.

All this adds up to a situation where the increasingly conservative rank-and-file "base" of the Republican Party is pulling its putative leaders to the right rather than following their direction. Given the traditionally hierarchical nature of the GOP, that may be a refreshing change for its members, but it's not exactly designed to produce a message or candidates that appeal to the rest of the electorate.

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Certainly the Republicans appear to have a major leadership vacuum. But how is this different from the Democractic leadership vacuum prior to the 2008 election? I seem to recall (however distant it now feels) a pervasive perception that Democrats lacked any central message which was largely attributed to having no recognizable leadership. We wandered the wilderness with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, who were characterized as inept, undistinguished, and unlikeable. But perhaps we expect more from Republicans - nothing more chaotic and amorphous than Democrats out of power. But even now, when we actually have indisputable Democratic leaders, I'm not sure they've figured out how to lead.

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