“The Democratic Party has shown itself over the last four elections to be a very slow learner, and, so, it may take them some more elections to get a new vocabulary.” – George Will, election night, 1984.
In the modern American media, social and otherwise, everything is a “0” or a “10.” Nuance is hard to come by, and hysterics on all sides feed a 24/7 news cycle that somehow became more ubiquitous (25/10?) as round-the-clock connectivity via smartphones and other mobile devices became the norm.
That’s why I think it’s important to evaluate what happened in last week’s election with the benefit of rational perspective. It may be possible that the election results were neither the end of the country as we know it, as many at Fox News seemed to intimate, nor were they something to be compared to Ronald Reagan’s 525-13 landslide in 1984, as lefty Buzzfeed chief Ben Smith suggested.
The facts are these: In 2008, Barack Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes, carrying 28 states. In 2012, President Obama won about 50.6% of the popular vote and 332 electoral votes, carrying 26 states. He earned about 69.5 million votes in 2008 and won the popular vote by about ten million votes. With a few votes still to be tallied in 2012, he has earned about 62 million votes with a winning margin of a little over three million votes.
On a scale from one to ten, in terms of a disaster for the Republican Party, this was probably somewhere in the four-to-five range. Yet, as explained above, it’s being hailed as a ten (or close to it).
While I don’t think the situation is as dire as a lot of giddy pundits, there is some bad news to be doled out. Let’s get to it.
Much has been said by both the left and the right about “demographics” in the wake of Romney’s defeat. The left (with glee), and the right (with despair), note the fact that the proportion of the country that is white has shrunk slightly from election to election over the last several cycles, and will only continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
However, as John Cook of Gawker points out, this case is overstated, if not flawed. The idea that ethnicity is a permanent surrogate for decision-making on election day is insulting to all groups. But that’s the inference drawn from the argument currently being proffered by many on both sides: Namely, that more non-whites means that Republicans and/or “traditional America” are on the way out.
The problem isn’t precisely that, but it’s within hailing distance of it. I would describe it more as the notion of identity politics becoming an accepted cultural norm, especially in urban politics, while the more conservative or classical liberal ideal of a color-blind society has fallen into disfavor. The primary example of this is progressive-dominated academia, where, rather than race being increasingly disregarded since the civil rights movement, entire administrative departments now exist precisely to ensure that race is taken into account in contexts ranging from admissions to the curriculum itself.
It certainly isn’t that the GOP doesn’t want minorities. Anyone listening to the speakers at the GOP convention should be dispossessed of that idea. The argument that the GOP doesn’t want minorities in its ranks is absurd. Whether the GOP knows how to add minorities without altering their core beliefs about things like entitlement programs for the poor is a different matter.
And now we reach the heart of it. The problem really comes down to the fact that Democrats have become much more politically savvy in the last twenty years, while Republicans have become exponentially worse on the same front.
This works on two levels. First, Democrats are able to make the case that the GOP doesn’t care about Group X. Once that case is made, Republicans are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Neglecting to court minorities or women serves as “proof” of the Democrats’ argument about Republicans’ insensitivity (or worse), while a visible Republican effort to appeal to certain groups prompts the Democrats to convince voters that this effort is tokenism or disingenuous. In short, the case has been made successfully to many moderates that women and minorities shouldn’t “trust” the GOP.
But that’s not even the biggest problem.
The second, more troubling issue is that the Republicans have been forced to embrace a sort of pseudo-populism at the edges, often manifesting itself as the Tea Party Movement.
Despite what has been stated perpetually by the mainstream media, there’s nothing wrong with the Tea Party, per se. The problem is that the Republican Party structure hasn’t been able to deal with the movement in a manner that has been beneficial on a national level. Hence, some of the losses last week.
Instead of keeping the Tea Party folks in check, convincing them that the mainstream Republican Party would be addressing their concerns (as well as the concerns of a broader base), the Tea Party has been able to overpower “establishment” candidates in primaries, making for some significant uphill battles in general elections.
This works fine in the most “local” aspect of the federal government, the House of Representatives, where Republicans still maintain a majority. But, the wider the constituency, the more trouble the candidate will have. This is why the Democrats continue to make gains in the Senate, even in states where the Democratic candidate was considered vulnerable.
In my own state of Virginia, the proverbial handwriting is already on the wall that a very electable Republican like current Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, who would have a great chance to win a gubernatorial race, may never get the chance. Instead, he could lose a nomination battle to Tea Party darling Ken Cuccinelli, currently the Attorney General.
Bolling isn’t as flashy as Cuccinelli, and he certainly wouldn’t be as exciting to those with the loudest voices. However, despite his own conservative credentials, Bolling also wouldn’t be as unpalatable to moderates and independent voters, which is what happened in some of the Senatorial races last week. Just as certain weak Democrats managed to win (or hold on to) seats, a Cuccinelli candidacy would be a risky proposition that would probably provide the only avenue for opportunistic, not-really-a-Virginian Terry McAuliffe to become our governor.
That brings me back to last week’s Romney defeat. An important point for Republicans to remember is that, in the internet age, “one Republican is every Republican.” A Republican in, say, Missouri, making a dumb statement will carry over everywhere else thanks in some measure to a less-than-friendly media. Romney lost, in part, because many voters bought the idea that the fringe elements of his party were his party, and, by extension, voting for Romney meant voting for them (even though Romney is by no means an extremist).
In short, the Republicans of 2012 are making some of the same mistakes at the right end of the political spectrum that the Democrats made in the 70s and 80s at the left end of the political spectrum.
The perception of Democrats in the 70s and 80s was that the controlling force behind the party’s “soul” was that of mealy-mouthed, milquetoast liberalism coupled with left-leaning special interest groups and unions. Rather than keeping those groups in the party while the the “adults” moderated the Democratic message, those more ideological voices were the ones that came to the fore and were more closely associated with the party as a whole in the minds of moderate and independent voters.
The only presidential election the Democrats won between 1964 and 1992 was 1976, with a poor economy and the Watergate scandal as a fresh memory. Republicans won in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988, with the latter four elections all being real landslides.
This is why last week’s results should remain simultaneously encouraging and frustrating for Republicans. For all the talk about demographics, and the War on Women, and the “extremism” of the GOP, Romney still came closer to beating Obama than McCain did, and much closer than McGovern, incumbent Carter, Mondale, or Dukakis did to defeating their Republican foes.
A couple of things need to change, though.
First, there is a myth that the Republicans have “moved to the right” in recent years. That’s not true at all. It’s a fiction spun by those on the left to try to “recalibrate” our political discourse. Compared to, say, Europe, we are certainly a very conservative country, and many of the debates we have operate at a point on the political spectrum well to the right of many other industrialized nations. Recasting the GOP as “extremists” is a subtle attempt to convince people that the mid-point of our debates should be closer to that of Europe, where, to cite one random example, a single-payer healthcare system is basically a given.
This is a tactic that has been attempted for years, but has only recently become effective thanks to shift in the relative skill of the two parties, as I mentioned earlier. If you don’t buy that, go take a look at the New York Times endorsement of Mondale from 1984. You’ll notice a lot of language implying Reagan has extreme views, and that Mondale’s ideology is more “enlightened” and less “backward.”
Same sales pitch, but, almost three decades later, the salesmen have gotten much better.
The simple fact is Republicans aren’t really much further to the right than they were in 2004, the last time they won the White House, or in 2010, when Republicans gained six seats in the Senate and a whopping 63 seats in the House of Representatives. However, something has definitely changed: The country has moved left on a small number of wedge issues, and savvy Democrats have effectively sold the electorate on the idea that it’s actually the Republicans who have become extreme. The Republicans have merely stayed put, or haven’t moved as fast, and it’s misleading to say otherwise. I might even go as far as to call it rhetorical gaslighting.
This is especially true on the issue that gets brought up most in this context: gay marriage. Remember—Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law in the fall of 1996 (hardly the dark ages), saying “I remain opposed to same-sex marriage. I believe marriage is an institution for the union of a man and a woman. This has been my long-standing position, and it is not being reviewed or reconsidered.”
If a Republican articulated that exact position in 2012, he would be labeled a bigot and an extremist by Huffington Post, Bill Maher, Gawker, and so on.
The point of that is to dispel the notion that the GOP has suddenly become more extreme. The GOP position in 2012 is roughly that of Republicans and Democrats 10-15 years ago.
Having said all that, the Republicans need to accept the fact that the battle over gay marriage will be—and is being—lost. By the 2016 election, probably half the states will have legal gay marriage. If the current president is able to appoint another justice to the Supreme Court, it could be 50 out of 50.
If you’re an opponent of gay marriage reading this and thinking, “You’re a traitor, Tom,” know that I will always defend your right to oppose gay marriage without ever calling you a purveyor of “hate speech,” and I believe fully in a society’s collective right to re-order itself how it sees fit, absent a specific constitutional provision to the contrary (and I do not believe that one exists here, as I’ve explained). I don’t believe that those who oppose gay marriage are “evil,” just as I don’t believe socialists need to apologize for or euphemize their ideology. And I mean real, honest-to-goodness socialists. Not non-socialist President Obama.
But opponents of gay marriage also need to realize that the left will not extend that same courtesy. They have already made the argument that your position (up to and including consumption of the wrong brand of chicken sandwich) is tantamount to hate speech, and they will continue to make that assertion so until it is as taboo to voice an anti-gay-marriage position as it is to voice an anti-interracial-marriage position (an analogy that has been a rhetorical “hook” the pro-gay-marriage side has used for years).
I’m not saying you should give up this fight if it’s important to you. I’m not one of those who believes in giving up on a belief simply because public opinion is moving in another direction. What I’m saying is that, for the good of the Republican Party, and as a practical matter, it can no longer be anywhere close to the fore of a political agenda.
Immigration is also a sticky topic. I think that the president’s recent modification to immigration policy was a good one, although defying the will of Congress’ 2010 vote on the matter leaves me a bit uneasy. The biggest problem Republicans have is that they failed to distinguish between the issue of immigration and the issue of border security. I’ll elaborate on this more in part two.
Then there’s climate change. Again, I believe there’s a strong conservative position to be taken, here, and I’ll discuss that more at a later date. For now, trying to mock the mere idea of climate change, a mistake even Romney made, causes Republicans to appear to be oblivious to things “known” by Democrats. Whether that’s true or not, that’s the perception, and it creates a negative impression among voters.
But even those issue-based modifications may not be as important as the top change Republicans must make to become more electable going forward. And it’s a simple one.
Don’t believe it when liberals tell you that your views are the problem (except for a narrow band, as explained above). Most of the basic principles that someone like Dennis Prager espouses are still embraced by most Americans. As I referenced before, despite the progressive dream of becoming more like the European model of a social democracy, Americans are still to the right of those nations on many topics.
But when certain anti-intellectual fringe candidates are the clumsy messengers for those conservative principles, things break down. The Democrats are able to take their words, and certain ideological positions, and use those as “deal-breakers” for moderates and independents who would otherwise consider voting Republican. And this is a huge problem.
I freely admit that, broadly speaking, I’m a conservative. But I’m also a conservative who respects education, science, intelligence, knowledge, and, above all else, competence.
It is that competence, at the candidate level, at the party level, and at the campaign level, that separates the GOP of today and the GOP of 30 years ago. It is also what separates the Democratic Party of today and the Democratic Party of 30 years ago—except in the opposite direction.
Republicans need to recover their seriousness. Yes, Republicans, you will always be at a disadvantage in three key culture-building areas of our society: The media, academia, and the entertainment industry. But that’s not a valid excuse to turn your back on worldliness or “book-learnin’.” A party stocked with people like Jon Huntsman or Mark Kirk (instead of those being outliers) will be much tougher to mock than one populated by the Todd Akins of the world.
Democrats were considered foolish, lefty idealists when I was growing up. Americans trusted governance to Republicans because Republicans seemed like grown-ups. Editorials at major media outlets said the same things about the GOP then as now, but the public didn’t buy it. Why? Because it was a lot harder to make that case.
It isn’t anymore.
Now, the Democrats are the ones who seem to be more in touch with the realities of American life. Barack Obama is a serious, contemplative man. I believe Romney was, as well, but the baggage of his party (coupled with some class warfare nonsense) made enough of a slight difference to keep him from triumphing over an incumbent saddled by a poor economy.
Altering the party’s “personality” will be an uphill battle. It took about a decade for it to come to this, so reversing course in two or four years may not be realistic.
Yet, the news is not all bad. And I’ll address and explain all of that in Part Two.
You see, my fellow Americans, 2016 will be the first election in which I am old enough to be eligible to run for the office of President of the United States.
And, so, Republicans, fear not:
Candidate Tom Garrett is coming to save you.
Stay tuned for the blueprint.