Remember the new conservative coalition that was to provide a "permanent Republican majority?" Today that pipe dream is mostly associated with Karl Rove, but originally it was envisioned by Richard Nixon as the fruit of his Southern Strategy. This strategy was supposed to retain the party's traditional Northeastern and Midwestern conservative base while reaching out to Southerners disaffected by civil rights and the role of Democrats in the demise of Jim Crow. It was designed to meld the Puritan tradition of small government and individual responsibility with the historical sense of loss and grievance that infected the South.
Back then The Southern Strategy was called a master stroke by political pundits because, it was thought, the traditional Yankee conservative base had no where else to go while the newly disaffected South was ripe for the taking.
The Southern Strategy worked well for Nixon. Ten years later it wasn't accidental that Ronald Reagan, as Presidential candidate, gave a speech celebrating states rights in Philadelphia Mississippi, the very city made famous for the murder of Chaney, Goodman and Schwermer. George Bush the elder used his Willie Horton ad to raise the specter of black crime for political advantage, and his son, George W. Bush, campaigned in South Carolina benefiting from the planted rumor that John McCain was the father of a black child.
We in North Carolina remember the famously effective TV spot highlighting white anxiety with affirmative action used by Jesse Helms to dispose of Harvey Gantt. And as recently as the last election, Bob Corker of Tennessee ran an ad that was both sexually charged and blatantly racist to defeat Harold Ford, his black opponent.
So, as the GOP reached out to an electorate that was more retrograde, angry and intolerant than it was classically conservative, the party came to resemble that which it desired.
This has left the traditional base of the Northern Republican Party in the back of the political bus while a new class of Southern Republican is in the driver's seat. For two reasons this has left the Republican Party's Yankee constituency alienated and unhappy: first, no one likes being taken for granted and left virtually powerless, and second, pragmatic "reality based" conservatives are increasingly alarmed by the excesses of "faith based" ideologues.
On a national basis the arithmetic of a Republican majority could last only so long as the historical momentum of the traditional Republican Party held in the Northeast and the Midwest - assuming the South became and then remained entirely Republican. Without substantial parts of the Northeast and Midwest the South alone would never be enough. For the permanent Republican majority to work Republicans had to maintain a significant share of Congressional and state wide political offices in places like Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
This is something that the Republicans are failing to do.
In Ohio and New Hampshire, which have been predominantly Republican since the Civil War, the GOP lost in the last election with the sort of landslide that comes once in a century. Even a popular Republican incumbent like Lincoln Chafee, who enjoyed a 60% approval rating, could not hold his seat in traditionally moderate Rhode Island. In Vermont the word "Republican" has become so anathema that in their last Senate race, where no Democrat was on the ballot, a self described socialist defeated the Republican candidate with 65% of the vote.
If there is one overriding revelation that comes out of the last election, it's that at least for now the momentum of old line classical conservatism is spent within the Republican Party. That being true, then one of three things must happen.
Traditional conservatives could emerge as a new libertarian wing of the Democratic Party led by "blue dog" Democrats such as Casey from Pennsylvania, Tester from Montana and Webb from Virginia
Traditional conservatives could become ever more unaffiliated and wind up holding their nose every two years and choosing between ideological extremes
Traditional conservatives might find a way to increase their power within the Republican Party so they could once again feel comfortable on the Republican bus (The one obvious way this might happen is the successful "main stream" Presidency of a Republican like Hagel, Pataki or Giuliani)
Failing the third, and least likely alternative, what seems probable is the Republican Party's future as a political movement ever more centered in the South, left to hope for the occasional cooperation of various border and mountain states. To be sure, the GOP would remain a significant voice in national politics, but the arithmetic adds up to only a "permanent Republican minority."
So what then would become of the party of Lincoln, the party of the Union, the party born of an impulse to stop the spread of slavery? Perhaps Republicans might reflect on the wisdom of Eliot Ness as he considered the terrible price of a victory won at any cost, "I have forsworn myself, I have broken every law I swore to defend, and I've become what I beheld."