Political junkies, never fear: The end of our long Presidential contest on Nov. 4 may be the beginning of another fascinating race. However, you won't see the terrain of this election on John King's big map. It's taking place in Israel, and it provides an illuminating contrast to our own system.
The long and short of the Israeli situation is this: The current Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign after details of his involvement in a shady housing deal became public. In the Israeli parliamentary system, the resignation of a Prime Minister triggers a primary in the dominant party to see who gets the top spot. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won the primary. She now has until Nov. 3 to convince a majority of ministers in Israel's parliament (the Knesset) to vote her into office to avoid having to run again in a general election.
To get the backing she needs in a system where party members are in lockstep with their leadership, Livni needs to make deals with the leaders of smaller parties that secure their support in exchange for political concessions. Right now, Livni's fortunes hinge on the cooperation of Shas, a religious party that represents a large segment of Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority.
Shas' primary concern is maintaining and expanding privileges for its highly religious constituents. This shows in its main demand: a massive increase in aid to families with large numbers of children (ultra-Orthodox families are significantly larger than most Israeli households).
Though negotiators for Livni's Kadima party have yet to accede to Shas' demands in their entirety, the threat of facing an election they would most likely lose could trigger a total capitulation.
Shas, then, is in the enviable position of political kingmaker. Their sizable number of Knesset seats and alliance with other religious parties gives them enormous clout in the coalition-building process. Their willingness to ally both with the centrist Kadima and the dominant right wing party Likud, unlike most of the other small parties, makes Shas a crucial bloc of swing voters. Add in its fanatically loyal base of ultra-Orthodox voters and it looks like Shas and its allies will be the Deciders in Israeli politics for the foreseeable future.
The American hard right wishes it had it so good.
Unlike Shas, American hardliners cannot achieve their goals by running as a third party and demanding concessions from whoever comes out on top -- the structure of American politics makes that impossible. Instead, they need to hitch their star to one of the Big Two (given their views, it's gotta be the Republicans) and prove themselves useful enough electorally for the party to push their agenda once they gain power.
This strategy worked well enough in 2004. Four years later, it's looking like their luck is running out.
What seems to excite the far right this election -- Sarah Palin, attacks on Obama's character, culture warrior rhetoric -- is anathema to the rest of the country, and not just because they'd rather hear about the economy.
Palin's appeal to hard right Republicans --her outsider status --comes with a concomitant lack of knowledge that terrifies independents and moderate Republicans. While character assassination may whip the fringe into a "kill him!" frenzy, it convinces the rest of the country that Obama, not McCain, is the candidate with real solutions.
And so-called "values" issues declined significantly in relative importance for most Americans even before the economic meltdown. The qualities that appeal to the Republican "base" are exactly the traits that have made the Republicans so extraordinarily unpopular with the rest of the country.
The far-right might have a Shas-like future were the American political system more like Israel's. But it's not, and it's becoming increasingly clear that contorting to the whims of the Dobson crowd is dragging the Republican Party further and further away from the American mainstream. The sooner the Republicans realize this, the sooner they'll take the albatross off their neck, and the more likely it will be that they remain a viable party for the rest of the 21st century.