We Republicans cherish the free market. So now might be the right time to start listening to it. Our party has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. That is 20 years of “no, thanks” from the American people. Only basketball’s Washington Generals, who are paid to lose to the Harlem Globetrotters, can exceed that losing record, and by only four years (1971–95).
The worst error politicians can make is to spin themselves. It’s time for the GOP to face the hard truth, no matter how painful. The Republican brand is dying, many of our strategists are incompetent, and we still design campaigns to prevail in the America of 25 years ago.
Identifying the problem is easy. The Republican challenge is not about better voter-turnout software; it is about policy. We repel Latinos, the fastest-growing voter group in the country, with our nativist opposition to immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship. We repel younger voters, who are much more secular than their parents, with our opposition to same-sex marriage and our scolding tone on social issues. And we have lost much of our once solid connection to the middle class on kitchen-table economic issues.
A debate will now rage inside the GOP between the purists, who will as always call for more purity, and the pragmatists, who will demand modernization. The media, always culturally alien to intra-Republican struggles, will badly mislabel this contest as one between “moderate” and “right-wing” Republicans. In fact, the epic battle we Republicans face now is a choice between two definitions of conservatism.
One offers steadfast opposition to emerging social trends like multiculturalism and secularization. The alternative is a more secular and modernizing conservatism that eschews most social issues to focus on creating a wide-open opportunity society that promises greater economic freedom and the reform of government institutions like schools that are vital to upward social mobility.
The battle lines are already drawn. While the electoral arithmetic is obvious, teaching basic math to a political party is no simple matter. The lesson usually requires the heavy hammer of multiple crushing and painful election defeats. Whether the GOP has learned its lesson yet is the big question. The party’s biggest funders, mostly hardheaded business types, are in shock and high dudgeon after providing a virtual blank check to a GOP apparatus that promised much and delivered very little. Among this group, there is much frustration with the party’s perceived focus on divisive social issues and even some dark talk of a donor strike.
But in the precincts of movement and social conservatives, an opposite battle cry is sounding. In late November, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, whose tireless work to recruit unelectable GOP candidates in 2010 did more to help keep Harry Reid Senate majority leader than the work of any single Democrat, lobbed one of the first grenades. He denounced newly announced Republican Senate candidate Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia as being ideologically unacceptable, despite the fact that Capito narrowly leads Democratic incumbent Jay Rockefeller in a poll of the prospective race.
Which points to another, often ignored, GOP weakness: Republicans tend to be more competitive in off-year elections, when voter turnout is far lower than in presidential years and the electorate is therefore older, whiter and more Republican. It is possible for the GOP to do well in 2014, especially because so many vulnerable Democratic Senators in GOP-leaning states face re-election. But like the Republican off-year successes of 2010, a few non-presidential-year victories, while welcome, would also provide the GOP with a highly misleading dead-cat bounce. The electorate in 2016 will look much like the electorate this year, albeit even more Hispanic and more challenging for the GOP. And the overall demographic trends that are burying the current Republican coalition will only become stronger with time.
How will this epic battle end? The struggles of the Democratic Party in its wilderness years from 1968 to 1992 provide two possible answers. Will the GOP, like the Democrats of 1992, find a path to pivot toward electability and the actual governing power that goes with it? Or will today’s Republicans act like the Democrats of 1972, who reacted to the defeat of Establishment favorite Hubert Humphrey in 1968 by nominating George McGovern, a purist candidate from its far left?
Senator DeMint, call your office. We Republicans might have to endure one more brutal lesson before we master America’s new political math. I hope not.
Murphy is a Republican consultant