Michael Gerson & Peter Wehner @ Commentary:
The Republican Party is in trouble: In the wake of the presidential election, everybody has said so, and everybody is right. From there, however, a hundred paths diverge and a thousand voices have been heard. The relevant questions are these: How deep is the trouble? How much of it is self-inflicted and how much is a function of circumstance? Can the problem be repaired, and if so, by what means?
By all rights, Barack Obama should have lost the 2012 election. The economy during his first term in office was weak from beginning to end. Growth was anemic when not utterly static, unemployment was persistently high, and, as recently as last year, an overwhelming majority of Americans still believed we were in a recession. The signature legislative achievements of the president’s first term—the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package—were so unpopular that on last year’s campaign trail he rarely mentioned them.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which in 2010 had gained an epic midterm electoral victory, was regarded as highly energized and poised to win. Michael Barone, one of the most knowledgeable political observers in America, predicted Mitt Romney would comfortably defeat the president. “Fundamentals usually prevail in American elections,” Barone wrote four days before the election. “That’s bad news for Barack Obama.”
And yet Obama won going away, defeating Romney by 126 electoral votes (332 to Romney’s 206) and winning the popular vote by nearly 5 million. In the Senate, which many had thought likely to fall to Republican control, the GOP lost two seats; in the House, it managed to hold its majority, but at the loss of eight seats.
The 2012 election was not only a dismal showing for the Republicans but the continuation of a dismal, 20-year trend. Out of the last six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 210 for the Republican. During the preceding two decades, from 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 113. In three of those contests, the Democrats failed to muster even 50 electoral votes.
What is the reason for this swift and stunning reversal of electoral fortunes? The answer lies in a variety of factors—and in their confluence.
The first factor is America’s changing demographics. Much has been written on this topic, but the essential datum is the long-term shrinking of those demographic groups, especially white voters, who traditionally and reliably favor the GOP: from 89 percent of the electorate in 1976 to 72 percent in 2012. This decline is partially an artifact of a change in the way the Census Bureau classifies Hispanics, who used to be counted among whites before being placed in a separate category. But it has much more to do with a real, ongoing change in the composition of the American populace. In any given contest, the GOP can overcome this obstacle. Over time, however, the obstacle will grow ever larger.
Consider the performance of Mitt Romney, who carried the white vote by 20 points. If the country’s demographic composition were still the same last year as it was in 2000, he would now be president. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, he would have won in a rout. If he had merely secured 42 percent of the Hispanic vote—rather than his pathetic 27 percent—Romney would have won the popular vote and carried Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico. Republicans, in short, have a winning message for an electorate that no longer exists.
Another factor lies in the realm of foreign policy. For four decades, our adversarial relationship with the Soviet Union was a major issue in presidential elections. Over that period, and particularly from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, Republicans were widely considered the stronger and more trustworthy party when it came to national defense and to keeping America safe. In every presidential election since the Nixon–Humphrey contest in 1968, Republicans began with a significant lead in this respect. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, this potent issue was largely taken off the table. Nor has the decidedly mixed legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade worked to bolster the Republicans’ electoral advantage in the conduct of foreign policy; if anything, the opposite is the case.
Then there is the quality of the candidates fielded by the two sides. Democrats have nominated two candidates—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—endowed with formidable political skills. The former is one of the most naturally gifted politicians in modern American history; the latter is one of the most ruthlessly efficient ones. Republican presidential candidates, in contrast, have sometimes shown a marked inability to connect with the concerns of working- and middle-class voters or to convince such voters that Republican policies will help improve their prospects in life. In some cases, the Republican agenda with respect to the middle-class electorate has been strikingly uncreative and tone-deaf. In 1996, for example, the GOP candidate, Senator Bob Dole, focused like a laser beam on the 10th Amendment and spoke glowingly of building a bridge…to the past.
And it is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.
To be clear: Reasonable tax rates and sound monetary policy remain important economic commitments. But America now confronts a series of challenges that have to do with globalization, stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs, exploding health-care and college costs, and the collapse of the culture of marriage.
In addition, on a number of these issues the Republican Party has developed a reputation—mostly but not completely unfair—as judgmental and retrograde. It didn’t help that, during last year’s primary season, one of the final two major candidates in the field (Rick Santorum) promised that if elected he would speak out against the damage done to American society by contraception, or that just prior to the general election, two ultimately failed candidates for the Senate spoke with stunning insensitivity about female victims of rape.
In combination, all these factors have left many in the GOP in a demoralized state, convinced that the challenges confronting them are not superficial, cyclical, or personality-oriented but that prevailing political forces, as well as prevailing public attitudes, present enormous obstacles to the national success of their party. They are right to be worried.
What, then, needs to be done? A good start may be to learn from the past. This is hardly the first time a political party has needed to take stock of new political realities and to recalibrate accordingly.
By the early 1990s, the Democratic Party had endured a miserable, two-decades long losing streak in presidential elections. (The one exception was the election of Jimmy Carter in the wake of the Nixon-era Watergate scandal.) Since the party’s nomination of George McGovern in 1972, the Democrats had come to be viewed, with some justice, as outside the cultural mainstream: flaccid on national defense if not quasi-isolationist, incapable of keeping order in our streets, and anti-growth in their economic philosophy. It had become an omnium-gatherum for left-liberal true believers.
In 1972, an anonymous Democratic senator, later revealed to be Thomas Eagleton, famously referred to George McGovern as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” No wonder, then, that McGovern went on to lose 49 of the 50 states to Richard Nixon. “Nothing is more certain in politics,” wrote William Safire in the wake of this Democratic fiasco, “than the crushing defeat of a faction that holds ideological purity to be of greater value than compromise.” To a greater or lesser degree, that was the case for the Democrats for almost the next 20 years.
Enter Bill Clinton—a reform-minded Southern governor who knew instinctively what had to be done. Having won office in an ideologically challenging part of the country, and having learned from bitter personal experience the lessons of electoral defeat, Clinton resolved to revitalize the party and recharge its connection with the middle-class voting public.*
In preparing for his 1992 presidential run, Clinton became chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a centrist group formed in the aftermath of the 1984 loss to Ronald Reagan. Consciously seeking to distance itself from the rhetoric of the McGovern/Carter/Mondale/Dukakis years, the DLC stressed the core themes of opportunity, responsibility, community, and entrepreneurial governance. Clinton, proclaiming himself a “New Democrat,” called in 1991 for a “New Covenant” between the American people and the government: a “solemn agreement…to provide opportunity for everybody, inspire responsibility throughout our society, and restore a sense of community to our great nation.”
Importantly, Clinton anchored this message in concrete issues: promoting national service; making our streets and neighborhoods safer; strengthening the traditional family and creating a more family-friendly workplace; promoting educational accountability and advocating public-school choice; and, especially, “ending welfare as we know it.”
Welfare was “key,” as Elaine Kamarck, a Clinton adviser, put it, “because it was about values.” And when it came to the value of work, the Democratic Party was out of step with most Americans, who “resented the culture of welfare and the culture of dependency.”