In today’s Times, Paul Krugman speculates about what is next for the Republicans, if, as expected, they fare poorly at the polls tomorrow. Overall I think he’s right about where this is likely headed.
If indeed Virginia is a bellwether it means they could be in for a long winter. Here the political story is as much about the purpling of the state and demographic changes as it is about a seemingly willful effort on the part of Republicans to marginalize themselves from the electorate. Mark Warner’s senate campaign is a prime example. He’s poised to win by an enormous margin regardless of what happens at the presidential level in part because he was a great governor who led the state out of a real fiscal mess, but also in part because the Republicans have put themselves so far out of the mainstream as not to be at all compelling or competitive.
So, in our corner of the world, what does the coming Republican wilderness time potentially mean nationally for education policy? It would seem there are three basic possibilities:
First, Republicans could decide that while a party’s base matters, national elections are won in the center. Like George Bush did in 2000 they could use education as a part of a way back by promoting sensible middle of the road ideas and rhetoric. As I’ve written before, I can’t figure out why many conservatives are so reflexively hostile to public schools rather than seeing them as a powerful national institution that should be strengthened. And, while Bush’s presidency certainly has not turned well, politically his 2000 campaign was pretty good coming on the heels of eight pretty good years.
Second, and conversely, we could see a return to the slash and burn and culture war approach of the 1990s (or its last gasp). Sarah Palin hasn’t been hostile to public schools in Alaska but if she sees these sorts of politics as a way to a political future in 2012 it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t turn on a dime and others wouldn’t follow. This would mean a lot of ideas to effectively eviscerate the federal role in education, cut spending, devolve authority to the states and so forth. In a tight fiscal climate state “flexibility” can have a siren-like appeal because it gives states more flexibility around using federal dollars to plug other budget holes. The likely lack of Republican moderates on the Hill will only add to this dynamic.
Third, we could see some combination of the two approaches. This would involve big “moonshot” ideas that have little chance of becoming policy but give Republicans something to talk about that isn’t completely negative. Mike Petrilli’s ideas about completely flipping the federal role in education is one example of this approach. Not gonna happen anytime soon, but it’s a handy talking point to illustrate that you’re not just against everything.
But, if the experience in some states as well as the likely composition of the House and Senate after the dust settles is any guide, I’d bet on the first second [Sorry for the confusion! And thanks for the notes, bad editing.] option. That means a lot of theater, but not good news if you want to see a serious national debate about ideas for improving our public schools.