Congressional Republicans' resounding vote against the auto bailout this month captured a dynamic that could drive much of the party's response to Barack Obama and compound the threat to the GOP in the Northeast, the Midwest, and other regions where it is already retreating.
In both the House and the Senate, the auto vote underscored a regional imbalance that could define, and constrain, the party's agenda through the Obama presidency. In both chambers, the GOP caucus is increasingly dominated by members from the country's most conservative regions. And, as the vote to block federal assistance to the beleaguered auto companies demonstrated, those members are likely to steer the party on an ideologically aggressive course in 2009 that makes it tougher for Republicans to recover in swing or Democratic-leaning states where they have lately lost ground. "That's going to be a serious problem for the Republicans," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego) who studies Congress.
It's telling that so many Republicans from reliably conservative places were willing to attach the party to a policy that could economically devastate Rust Belt states.
The auto vote precisely illustrated the dynamic. Federal intervention to keep General Motors and Chrysler out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy drew respectable support from Northeast and Midwest Republicans. In the Senate, six GOP senators from those areas favored federal help and three opposed it. In the House, Northeast and Midwest Republicans divided fairly closely, with 26 backing the loans and 38 opposing them.
But Republicans from more-conservative (and virtually union-free) regions overwhelmingly said no. The Senate's Southern Republicans voted 16-2 against the bailout; Republicans from the Mountain West and Plains voted 12-2 against it. Southern House Republicans voted 76-3 against the assistance -- and each supporter had a General Motors plant in or near his district. Those decisive votes stamped the congressional GOP as the principal obstacle to the aid.
President Bush could still protect congressional Republicans from the potential consequences of that position with his decision Friday to resuscitate the auto companies with funds from the financial bailout package. But it's telling that so many Republicans from reliably conservative places were willing to attach the party to a policy that could economically devastate Rust Belt states where the GOP is already declining.
That gamble shows how the party's loss of regional and ideological equilibrium can reinforce itself. Because Republicans from swing and Democratic-leaning states now constitute such a distinct minority in the party caucus, they lack the numbers to prevent it from adopting positions unpopular with their voters. The caucus majority can impose a direction that solidifies the party where it is already strong but further endangers the minority.
This isn't the first time a party has fallen into this debilitating cycle. The classic example came after 1854 when Congress approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act, effectively repealing the Missouri Compromise that had limited slavery's spread in the territories. Until then, congressional Democrats were divided closely between Northern and Southern members. But the backlash against the Kansas-Nebraska Act destabilized that balance by provoking severe losses for Northern Democrats; as Southerners gained the advantage in the Democratic caucus, they repeatedly identified the party with pro-slavery policies that further undercut Northern Democrats already struggling against the emerging Republican Party. As the late David M. Potter recounted in his magisterial history of the 1850s, The Impending Crisis, the House's Northern Democrats didn't entirely recover until the New Deal.
The reverse essentially happened to Southern Democrats from the 1960s through the 1990s, when the party's deepening Northern tilt associated it with civil rights and other liberal measures that hastened the Republican advance across Dixie. Congressional Democrats have recently re-established greater balance between members from liberal and centrist areas. Now, Republican legislators in the most competitive states face the risk of being defined by an agenda that reflects only the priorities of bedrock conservative places. November's election results increased that danger by eliminating even more congressional Republicans who represented moderate regions. After those losses, the northern Mountain West and the South, both staunchly conservative, will supply nearly half of House Republicans next year -- and fully three-fifths of Senate Republicans. "They will be the face of the party," Jacobson says. That's ominous for more-centrist Republicans.
In congressional caucuses so skewed toward the right, it's not clear who will have an instinct for what might rebuild the GOP in Connecticut or California. Judging by how many Republicans were willing to risk the chaos of an auto-industry collapse, the early answer may be: no one who's in control.
This column was updated Dec. 19 to reflect President Bush's announced loan to U.S. automakers.
This article appears in the December 20, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.