The end of an era?

My boss here at the Campaign for America’s Future has a theory. It is that conservatism was an era. And that this era is over. They had their chance to govern; people are seeing the price in ruined lives, ruined institutions, lost treasure, lost everything, and are realizing, perhaps for all time, that they were sold a bill of goods.

I’m not quite so optimistic—Bob Borosage, a blessed optimist, always signs off his conversations with the command “be of good cheer”—but, well, maybe I’m getting there.

Here are two recent newspaper articles, one well-circulated, the other less so. The first is from the Wall Street Journal. Subscription only, so here are some big chunks.

New evidence suggests a potentially historic shift in the Republican Party’s identity — what strategists call its “brand.” The votes of many disgruntled fiscal conservatives and other lapsed Republicans are now up for grabs, which could alter U.S. politics in the 2008 elections and beyond.


Some business leaders are drifting away from the party because of the war in Iraq, the growing federal debt and a conservative social agenda they don’t share. In manufacturing sectors such as the auto industry, some Republicans want direct government help with soaring health-care costs, which Republicans in Washington have been reluctant to provide. And some business people want more government action on global warming, arguing that a bolder plan is not only inevitable, but could spur new industries.


Already, economic conservatives who favor balanced federal budgets have become a much smaller part of the party’s base. That’s partly because other groups, especially social conservatives, have grown more dominant. But it’s also the result of defections by other fiscal conservatives angered by the growth of government spending during the six years that Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress.


There are hard numbers:

In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in September, 37% of professionals and managers identify themselves as Republican or leaning Republican, down from 44% three years ago….


Federal campaign-finance reports document shifting support in some quarters of the business community. Hedge funds last year gave 77% of their contributions in congressional races to Democrats, up from 71% during the 2004 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan analyst of campaign finances. Last year the securities industry gave 45% of its money to Republicans, down from 58% in 1996, the center said.


“You see it in the lack of donor support” for Republican presidential candidates, says longtime strategist John Weaver…. Overall, Democratic presidential candidates have raised more than $200 million this year, about 70% more than their Republican rivals.


Basically, the center cannot hold:

One glue holding the party together is that social conservatives often share the goals of economic conservatives. Social conservatives supported the Bush tax cuts and wanted to make them permanent. But their priority, and what keeps them Republicans, is opposition to abortion, gay rights and the like.


Some intraparty tension is rooted in cultural differences. Social conservatives tend to be relatively lower-income, less educated, concentrated in the South and West, and newer to the party than many old-line Republicans of an economic or business bent. Each blames the other for the party’s current state — often employing pejoratives such as “Bible-thumpers” or “country-club Republicans.”


In Washington, Republican leaders’ relations are no longer as cozy as they once were with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s foremost business group, with its temple-like headquarters facing the White House. “It’s a much more complex relationship than it used to be,” says Chamber political director William Miller.


For example, he says, the Chamber supports a higher gasoline tax if revenues are dedicated to funding highways and bridges that truckers and other businesses want, and to hold down deficits. But that has put the Chamber at odds with antitax Republicans in Congress and the administration.


So says the Wall Street Journal: The “country club Republicans” are abandoning the grand project, leaving the field to the “Bible-thumpers.” But check out the latest news, this from the Washington Times: the thumbers are jumping ship, too.

Young evangelical Protestants continue to cling closely to their bedrock conservative values. Yet they are abandoning trust in the White House and straying from the Republican Party, according to an analysis that tracked waning sentiments from 2001 to 2007.


“An examination of the younger generation [those ages 18 to 29] provides evidence that white evangelicals may be undergoing some significant political changes,” said Dan Cox, a researcher with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “The question is whether these changes will result in a shift in white evangelical votes in 2008 and beyond.”…


Party identity also has come undone among the younger group, particularly in the past two years.


A majority of the young evangelicals ­ 55 percent ­ steadfastly proclaimed themselves Republicans in 2001, with 16 percent calling themselves Democrats and 26 percent independent. This year, Republican affiliation has dropped to 40 percent, while the number favoring Democrats has risen to 19 percent and independents to 32 percent.


“Since 2005 the group”s Republican affiliation has dropped significantly ­ by 15 percentage points,” Mr. Cox said. “Republicans now have only a 2-to-1 advantage over Democrats among younger white evangelicals, compared with a nearly 4-to-1 edge in 2005.”


So: what gives? Is optimism warranted?

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