Paul Ryan and company set up an ugly reckoning for New York’s Republicans

Paul Ryan during G.O.P. response to Obama's 2012 budget. ()
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Each of New York's seven Republican House members voted "yes" on Friday on a budget that would essentially end Medicare as it now exists. So did every other Republican from the Democrat-dominated Northeast.

The politics of these votes aren’t hard to explain, given that the Republican Party's activist base has never been more on guard against ideological apostates. For a G.O.P. office-holder, to break with the conservative line on even one high-profile vote is to invite this base to unite against you in a primary challenge. This was demonstrated loudly and repeatedly last year, when the likes of Christine O'Donnell, Joe Miller and Carl Paladino scored improbable victories in intraparty contests.

In a broader sense, though, the "yes" votes will have a profoundly destructive effect on the Republican Party in this part of the country.

The Medicare overhaul, part of a budget plan drafted by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has all of zero chance of becoming law anytime soon, with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House. The Republicans pushed it through the House anyway, in order to make a powerful statement about their principles and their priorities. By doing so, they guaranteed that the issue will play a major role in the 2012 debate. For local Republicans, that’s a very bad thing.

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To understand why, it's helpful to remember that Republicans enjoyed success at the ballot box here last fall in spite of—and not because of—the G.O.P. brand. They won by capitalizing on a very simple and reliable rule of politics: When the economy is in the pits and one party controls everything in Washington, swing voters will line up with the other party simply as a way of registering their discontent. (It helps also if the ruling party is coming off of two straight landslides, creating low-hanging fruit for the opposition party.)

So it was that the Republican share of New York's congressional delegation quadrupled in the 2010 midterms, from two to eight seats. (The number is now down to seven after Chris Lee's resignation in the 26th District.) And so it was that Republicans were able to make inroads in other Northeast states, too. Much was made, for instance, of Scott Brown's "likability" advantage over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts' 2010 Senate special election. But the race was only close enough for that to matter because it took place in an anti-Democratic climate; had it come in, say, 2006 or 2008, it would have been just another easy Democratic win, and no one would have noticed—or cared—that Coakley didn't seem to know who Curt Schilling was.

The decline of the G.O.P. brand in the Northeast is a story that goes back nearly five decades to 1964, when the national Republican Party—which then contained no shortage of moderates and liberals from the Northeast—made a fateful decision to nominate Barry Goldwater for president. Goldwater had just joined with the Senate's bloc of conservative segregationist Democrats in a failed effort to filibuster the Civil Rights Act. Goldwater's nomination, combined with President Johnson's full-on embrace of civil rights, set in motion a steady, gradual realignment of the parties.

Initially, the changes were most notable in the South, which had delivered eye-bulging pluralities to Democratic candidates for 80 years—a consequence of white Southerners' lingering resentment of the Republican-championed Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. (F.D.R. won more than 95 percent in several Southern states.)

But in the fall of '64, as he was eviscerated everywhere else in America, Goldwater actually won five Southern states—by far the best-ever showing for a G.O.P. candidate in the region. (In Mississippi, he gobbled up 87 percent of the vote.)

In the years and decades after '64, white Southerners began voting Republican more frequently, first only at the presidential level, then at the congressional and statewide level, and finally even at the local level. The national G.O.P. encouraged this evolution by winking at the white South's anxieties and resentments, but not in a way that would invite the kind of national backlash that Goldwater's nomination provoked. This was the "Southern strategy." In winning the South, the G.O.P. became a far more conservative party, embracing the free mixing of fundamentalist Christianity and public policy that so many of its new constituents believed in.

At first, this didn't hurt the party too much in the Northeast. The transformation was gradual, plenty of Rockefeller Republicans were still on the scene, and the G.O.P.'s national front men—Richard Nixon (pre-Watergate, of course), Gerald Ford, and even Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—simply didn't seem that threatening. Thus, while the Northeast remained friendlier to Democrats than Republicans, the G.O.P. still won plenty of victories in statewide and congressional races in the 1970s and 1980s. New York even voted for Reagan, not once, but twice.

But just as the pre-civil-rights Democratic coalition of liberal northerners and segregationist southerners had ultimately been untenable, so too was the G.O.P.'s new alliance of northern suburbanites and Southern whites. It took the election of a Democratic president in 1992 to bring these regional tensions to a head.

When Bill Clinton came to office, it marked the first time since the end of the Carter era that Democrats controlled both the White House and both houses of Congress. Which meant that the ingredients for swing voters to flock to the G.O.P. in the 1994 midterms were in place.

Republicans lined up en masse against Clinton's agenda, stoked fears that a massive expansion of government was underway, and reaped a spectacular windfall in '94—eight new seats in the Senate, 54 in the House, a host of new governorships, and countless state legislative seats across the country.

The Northeast was hardly immune to this wave. After the '94 midterms, 14 of New York's 31 House seats belonged to Republicans. So did the state's governorship, with George Pataki knocking off Mario Cuomo. Even Daniel Patrick Moynihan, facing what had seemed like a token challenge, was held to 54 percent of the vote, by Bernadette Castro. In New England, Republicans found themselves in control of four of the six governorships, six U.S. Senate seats and eight House seats. New Jersey also had a Republican governor, Christine Todd Whitman, along with a Republican state Senate and Assembly (and a majority Republican U.S. House delegation).

It was in the wake of this election that the swing voters of the Northeast awoke to the reality of what the modern Republican Party had become. The Republicans who took charge of the House were not like the Republicans that suburbanites in the Northeast were used to voting for in presidential and congressional elections. They were primary southerners like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay: deeply ideological, reflexively confrontational, and entirely comfortable merging religion and government. The Gingrich Republicans didn't like the minimum wage, talked of gutting popular federal programs, and even shut down the government over their desire to cut Medicare benefits. Gingrich himself, with his arrogance and ethical baggage, was an especially unappealing representative of the movement on a national level.