In November 2012, Republican Mitt Romney lost the presidential election. Handily. It was an election that many confidently expected him to win, an election in which most all historical markers virtually guaranteed his victory. But he failed. Across the Republican Party in the ensuing months, the excuses, the finger-pointing, the blaming, the volume of calls for a change of direction – or no change of direction – hit the news media. Mr. Romney wasn’t conservative enough; he was too conservative for the general election. The Republican political messages were fine; the messages were all wrong. The Party was not inclusive enough; the Party needs to be loyal to its principles and its voting base. The Party fielded self-destructive candidates; the Party abandoned its best candidates. Perhaps the most insightful analysis came from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who said, “We have to stop being the stupid Party. We have to stop saying stupid things.” Continually shooting yourself in the foot is, in fact, pretty stupid.
In response to all this politician and commentator analysis, the Republican National Committee commissioned a formal in-house study specifically to assess what happened and recommend changes to improve Republican electoral outcomes. The resulting report, entitled “Growth & Opportunity Project,” was released with the usual fanfare in March, 2013. In a nutshell, the report called for such things as immigration reform to better appeal to Hispanics, else “our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only” – important, given that the Republican base of older, white males is, in fact, shrinking. It called for coming together, saying “Republican organizations need to understand that all of this will work better if they all participate in these discussions and play their respective roles” – also important, given the bitter split between Tea Party and “moderate” (i.e. not-as-far-to-the-right) Republicans, and the dominating influence of Super-PACs, conservative think tanks and corporate lobbyists.
The report went on to call for fewer primary debates – potentially pulling the rug out from potential lower-funded candidates without the deep funding pockets needed to generate exposure. More targeted outreach to women (“they are not a ‘coalition’; they represent more than half of the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections”); more “mutually respectful” conversations with African-Americans; more receptivity to gays and lesbians (“for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be”). Finally, the report called for some “populist” support, saying “we should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.”
Lots of good ideas and frank admissions, suggesting some meaningful reflection going on. But one year later we should ask, “how’s that working out for you?”
Immigration reform? Barely passed the Senate, and only with extravagant funding for a small army to close the border with Mexico; dead in the House. Deep opposition to gays and lesbians remains an almost universal knee-jerk response, so no welcoming “big tent” there. For women, there are continued new “back door” laws to shut down abortion services, and now Mike Huckabee is leading opposition even to contraception prescriptions (women’s right to “the pill” was mandated by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago); plus near-unanimous negative votes against “equal pay” laws and renewal of the Violence Against Women law.
Then there is the full-scale attack on the rights and mechanisms to vote; the cynical message appears to be that if you cannot win on the strength of your ideas and candidates, then just change the rules on who can vote. (The Supreme Court’s 1-person/1-vote rule from forty years ago is still in effect, and the “poll tax” – e.g. our modern day equivalent by a voter ID – was also outlawed 50 years ago.) As far as middle-class/populist appeal, Republicans have reduced food stamps, cut extending unemployment benefits, and in seeming indifference to the middle-class and small business person, shut down the federal government provoking a significant setback to our national economy. Finally, as far as Republicans “working together,” the Party remains in civil war from both internal and external forces. One side is focused on winning elections; the other side is focused on ideological purity regardless of the outcome. It is a war with no end in sight.
The result is that – no surprise – “Growth & Opportunity Project” is yet another strategic plan with no support making no impactful change. Instead, actions have cemented a view among many Independents that Republicans want to turn back the clock 50 years on social issues, and cut finances to the poor and middle-class while subsidizing the rich and protecting corporate America. (Requiring the rich to pay at least as much percentage taxes is not “anti-capitalism income redistribution” as some claim; it is “fairness distribution.”)
And how did focus groups around the country describe the Party? The report itself states, "Asked to describe Republicans, they said that the Party is 'scary,' 'narrow minded,' and 'out of touch' and that we were a Party of 'stuffy old men.' This is consistent with the findings of other post-election surveys." Being simply “the Party of No” is not a way to attract an American public looking for problems to be solved; people who sound perpetually angry rarely make even good ideas seem attractive. “To succeed, we have to be the party of change … and we have to be the party of solutions.” (Bobby Jindal, once again.)
Where will the Party go with its internal dynamics? Attention is predominately focused on capturing the Senate in 2014. It may well happen. But there is another primary season coming, which will pull incumbent Republican candidates even further right against Tea Party opponents. Who the resulting candidates will be, and how well they will be positioned for the fall general election, is highly unknown at this point. For those who survive the primaries, their best hope then will the Democrats’ usual ineptitude at turning out their base in off-year elections. For in November, it is all about turnout, and Republicans have done best in off-years when zealot partisans rule the day. Nothing is assured either way.
And 2016? The Tea Party right-wing will not be denied. It will dominate the Party, and will insist on its day in the sun with a candidate solidly from their ranks. Their True Believer Candidate will carry the banner confidently into the 2016 general election. But when the public gets a close look at what that agenda really means, means to them personally, the candidate and the movement will be trounced at the polls – almost no matter who the Democratic candidate is. Then experienced Congresspersons will take back this co-opted Republican Party, correct its course back to just right-of-center, and the nation will benefit once again from having a true 2-party system that can rediscover how to govern.
It is a replaying of the 1964 election – when extremism in the Republican Party won the nomination and lost the election (in spite of fielding a principled and worthy candidate), and conservatism subsequently found truer reasonable voices. You heard it here first. 1964. It is coming back again.
© 2014 Randy Bell