Rebuilding the GOP

26 Mar

wounded-GOP-sizedThe reclamation project known as the Republican Party continues.

There’s a report by the Republican National Committee that lists the depth of the problems of a party that has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and that is on the wrong side of the demographic forces that are changing the country.

Here’s the problem – the problems outlined in the RNC report will not be solved by tweaks to the Republican message or by limiting the number of candidate debates in 2016.

It’s going to take a potentially bruising internal fight that will pit GOP constituencies and leaders against one another in a debate over ideas and issues.

This is nothing new to Democrats.

Twenty-five years ago they had lost five of six presidential elections, two by landslide margins in the popular vote.

Two victories by Richard Nixon, two by Ronald Reagan and then the election of George H.W. Bush finally convinced the Democrats they had to change.

For anyone willing to look, there are numerous parallels between Democrats then and Republicans now.

One is demographic.

The Democrats in the late 1980s depended on minority votes and had lost support among the white middle class.

Republicans today face the direct opposite.

They are too dependent on a shrinking white vote and lack support among minorities.

Republicans do recognize the lack of Hispanic voters, which is one reason some elected officials are shifting on immigration.

But supporting a path to citizenship as part of comprehensive immigration reform is not enough to attract significantly more Latino support.

The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) is highly popular among Hispanic voters but many Republicans are still trying to repeal it or cripple it.

Beyond that, in some states, there have been Republican-led efforts that would make it more difficult for Latinos and African-Americans to vote.

That is not a successful long-term strategy for a party that says it needs to be more welcoming and inclusive.

The repair effort needs to go beyond minorities for the GOP.

In the 1980s, Reagan attracted young voters to the Republican Party.
Now President Obama has turned young voters into Democrats.

In the ’80s, Democrats struggled to get the votes of male voters.
Today Republicans face a bigger and potentially more important deficit with women.

A second parallel is geographic.

Republicans in the 1980s talked of having a lock on the Electoral College — consistent success in enough states to give them a solid base from which to build to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

But that was in the days when California and New Jersey were swing states in presidential races.

Not any more.

Republicans haven’t won either state since 1988.

Today, Democrats can’t claim a lock on the Electoral College, but they have an electoral base that puts them far closer to a majority that the GOP.

A third parallel is the sense of a party that is outside the mainstream.

A quarter century ago, that described the Democrats.

They were seen as soft on crime, weak on defense, taxers and spenders and in love with programs from the Great Society that the public saw as failures — starting with welfare.

Republicans today face almost the same challenges, with the shifting positions toward same-sex marriage, immigration or tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Political parties are like people – they go through a series of phases before they remake themselves.

The first is denial.
That no longer describes the Republicans.

They awoke after Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama with a recognition that they were in trouble.

We see the Republican Party in phase two which is dominated by the proposition of: “While we have problems, cosmetic or mechanical changes will solve the problems.”

Changes like reworking the message, or finding a better messenger or doing something to catch up on the techniques of data mining, analytics, micro targeting and voter mobilization.

Essential, yes – but not close to the whole solution.

And, there is another false path for the Republicans — the belief that their problems are the result of a charismatic opponent.

Some say Obama won because he had more charisma than Mitt Romney.

There’s some truth to that, but not enough to explain why the GOP failed to win the White House.

The real truth is Romney also suffered from negative perceptions of his party.

While there are parallels between Democrats in the late ’80s and Republicans today, there are some differences that may affect the GOP’s efforts to change.

The Democratic Party changed from outside, not inside.

The effort was led by moderate and conservative Democrats, mostly from the South, who worried about their own political survival.

They linked up with Bill Clinton who tested a series of ideas designed to reposition the Democrats to make the party more acceptable to the middle-class voters they had lost to Reagan and the GOP.

That became the foundation for the new Democrat campaign in 1992.

There is no equivalent vehicle for Republicans today.

National party committees can do many things, but mostly they have to do with raising money and the mechanics of turning out voters.
They are not idea factories.

Nor have any influential elected officials stepped forward to lead the effort.

At the recent CPAC meeting, the two Republicans who spoke most directly about changing the party — former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Senator Rand Paul — had very different prescriptions.

If there is no agreement, there can be no plan.

But change is a constant, in things, people and political parties.

Parties change along with the country and Republicans have some of the building blocks upon which to begin the process of renewal.

The real question is – are they smart enough to see what has to be done with those blocks?

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