Nobel laureate Paul Krugman describes it well in his first New York Times column of the year Bigger Than Bush 01/02/08:
Forty years ago the G.O.P. decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party’s champion, to the Bush administration’s pervasive incompetence, to the party’s shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.
If the Bush administration became a byword for policy bungles, for government by the unqualified, well, it was just following the advice of leading conservative think tanks: after the 2000 election the Heritage Foundation specifically urged the new team to "make appointments based on loyalty first and expertise second."
Contempt for expertise, in turn, rested on contempt for government in general. "Government is not the solution to our problem," declared Ronald Reagan. "Government is the problem." So why worry about governing well?
Where did this hostility to government come from? In 1981 Lee Atwater, the famed Republican political consultant, explained the evolution of the G.O.P.’s “Southern strategy,” which originally focused on opposition to the Voting Rights Act but eventually took a more coded form: "You’re getting so abstract now you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites." In other words, government is the problem because it takes your money and gives it to Those People. [my emphasis]
I've been going on the assumption for several years now that understanding today's Republican Party and how it got to be the way it is requires two things: follow the segregationists, and follow Dick Cheney. And you get to today's Republican Party. You'll encounter a lot of other stuff along the way, e.g., Milton Friedman economics, neoconservative foreign policy theories. But those two lines of development, segregationists and Dick Cheney, ultimately tell the story about today's Christian Republican White People's Party.
Krugman also makes an important observation about the differences between the Democrats' political position in 1993 when Bill Clinton took office as President and today:
But America in 1993 was a very different country — not just a country that had yet to see what happens when conservatives control all three branches of government, but also a country in which Democratic control of Congress depended on the votes of Southern conservatives. Today, Republicans have taken away almost all those Southern votes — and lost the rest of the country. It was a grand ride for a while, but in the end the Southern strategy led the G.O.P. into a cul-de-sac. [my emphasis]
The Democrats, like the music recording business, are stuck in a model of proceeding that's about 20 years out of date. The Dems got so used to bobbing and weaving to keep those Southern conservative Dems with them that they find it hard to stop. One result of that approach has been the perceived need to select Democratic majority leaders in Congress from states and districts that are very contested, as opposed to leaders from solid Democratic districts who are less likely to find their re-elections endangered by being an aggressive partisan.
Watching Harry Reid, flounder around over the Rod Blagojevich's appointment of Roland Burris to Obama's former Senate seat is an example of what can happen. Digby posts about that developing fiasco here and Jane Hamsher here and here. Reid spent years knuckling under to Bush and the Republicans when he should have stood and fought. And now he's taking a stand over something that's less than a substantial issue. But he's afraid if he doesn't, the Beltway press corps will keep milking the Blogojevich scandal. Which they're going to do anyway.
Nancy Pelosi could and should have fought harder over ending the Iraq War. But picking her as Speaker of the House embraces the right idea. Because her San Francisco district is solidly Democratic, she's more likely to see her re-election endangered as a result of not being partisan enough. As opposed to the more contested Nevada, where Reid has to be cautious about coming off as excessively partisan. Exactly what you don't need in a majority leader.