In his Meet the Press endorsement of Barack Obama, Colin Powell became the latest Republican wise head to jump the McCain-Palin ship. Powell cited various factors in his decision, but the most important was what he characterized as his party’s shift to the right, as emblemized by his old buddy John McCain’s choice of That Woman. I’m inclined to think that this reflects a kind of time warp on Powell’s part, as if the party of his youth, of Eisenhower and Rockefeller, has really survived amidst the politics of Atwater and Rove. His defection is, in any event, of a piece with the Betrayal of the Republican Clerks, outlined by Patricia Cohen in today’s NYT Week in Review, which usefully contrasts this defecting class with the party rank and file, using Rice University political scientist Alan Matusow as academic expert.
Even as some within the Republican camp — including those who support Mr. McCain — have warned of substantial disaffection among party members and seem girded for a disappointing loss on Nov. 4, others insist that the despair is premature. This, in turn, may point to yet another emerging schism on the right — between rank-and-file conservatives and the movement’s own “media elite.”
“The migration or desertion of the intellectuals does not reflect the base,” said Mr. Matusow.
The Cohen-Matusow point is that the base will not run up the white flag for lack of a Noonan or a Buckley, and that’s probably true. But the lesson of the campaign is that no one, including Mike Huckabee and John McCain, proved capable of leading the party outside the intellectual cul-de-sac where it has pitched its tent since the 1980s. The GOP used to pride itself on the idea that ideas matter. How much it needs some new ones we’re about to find out.