Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Future of the Republicans

After losing two presidential elections in a row, there is a lot of pressure on the Republican Party to change. Recently Karl Rove announced an initiative to retain elected Republicans rather than letting them lose primary challenges. Others are calling for the Republicans to become Democrat-lite aka RINO (Republican In Name Only). Before we go too far let's look at the Democrats' recent history. It is easy to forget that they faced exactly the same challenge just eight years ago.

In 2000, Al Gore ran as a continuation of centrist Bill Clinton while George Bush ran as a centrist Republican (compassionate conservative). The election was very close but the Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress. They actually increased their control in the mid-term 2002 election.

In 2004, Howard Dean ran a campaign aimed at moving the party to the left. He was helped in this by the net-roots, a group of liberal activists who were disgusted by Clinton's centrism. The eventual candidate was John Kerry who was rated one of the three most liberal members of the Senate. Many Democrats admitted that they were not all that enthusiastic about Kerry but they hated Bush with a passion. They were surprised when Bush won reelection and retained control of Congress. There was serious talk about a permanent Republican majority.

So what did the Democrats do? Did they talk about how they needed to move to the center? No. They made Howard Dean their party chair and consolidated their move to the left. By the 2008 election, none of the candidates were talking about being centrists. They had all become progressives. They even threw Gore's running mate out of the party for not being anti-way.

They also learned to pick their battles. They no longer talked about gun control or abortion rights. Instead they talked about the divide between the rich and the poor.

The second mid-term elections are always hard on an incumbent. The newly-energized Democrats took advantage of that and of some missteps by Bush (including a general dissatisfaction with the Iraq war) and retook both houses of Congress.

In 2008, the top Republican candidates were three centrists (McCain, Romney, and Huckabee). The Democrats had a fight between three very liberal candidates (Obama, Clinton, and Edwards). Obama won the primaries and the general election, maintaining control of Congress.

Instead of moving to the left, the Republicans moved to the right, returning to the principles of Ronald Reagan.

The Democrats lost the mid-term election heavily. The Republicans took back the House and several statehouses.

The 2012 election was almost a mirror of the 2004 election. The Republicans had a moderate candidate who did not excite them but they hated President Obama. Obama won a decisive victory but not a crushing one like Reagan's 1984 victory or even Clinton's 1996 victory.

What lessons can we draw from this?

The biggest one is how quickly political fortunes can change.

The second one is that Democrats do much better when Obama is at the top of the ticket. The electorate is so evenly divided that voter turn-out is the deciding factor. In 2008 and 2012, Obama's presence at the head of the ticket brought in records numbers of Democrats. In 1210 the Democrats stayed home but the Republicans turned out. The number of Republican governors shows that Republicans can compete in enough states to win the presidency but many of those governors won in 2010 when Obama was not on the ticket.

The third lesson is that the Republicans need to learn how to pick their battles. At the same time they need to learn to repackage a core value. The Democrats are still the party of tax and spend but they packaged it as reducing the divide between the 1% and the rest of the country. The Republicans got cast as protectors of the rich. There are plenty of possibilities but they need a good hook like John Edwards's Two Americas.

Moving to the left will not help the Republicans. They can never compete with the Democrats on this. They will always be out-bid. Instead they need to explain why the Democrats are bad for the country.

As far as picking their battles, immigration is a good place to start. Eight years ago people were pouring across the border. That has largely stopped because of the poor economy. The Republicans need to acknowledge that reality and follow through with a plan that addresses the 11 million already here. Like the grand bargain on tax reform that they offered, they can claim that they are following in Reagan's footsteps.

The Republicans also need a charismatic candidate, something that they have not had since Reagan left office. Fortunately there are several governors who meet this qualification.

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