Why the GOP Will Double Down on a Losing Strategy

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaign in Findley, Ohio, nine days before the presidential election

The thing about an Etch A Sketch is that the picture never looks real. Mitt Romney‘s attempt to draw one self-portrait for the Republican primaries and a different one for the general election left voters unconvinced that he knew who he was. So how could they?

Republican primaries have become Tea Party litmus tests, forcing candidates to audition for a lily-white, antiurban base that feels like Archie Bunker and Ward Cleaver in an era of Modern Family and Dora the Explorer. Romney, who governed Massachusetts as a centrist, had to sprint right to prove his “severely conservative” bona fides against primary rivals like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, giving President Obama general-election ammunition on issues like immigration, taxes, energy and popular spending programs like FEMA. Meanwhile, for the second straight election cycle, the GOP missed a chance to seize control of the Senate when no-compromise Tea Partyers like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana beat more electable candidates in their primaries.

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Now it’s recrimination time. After the historic GOP congressional wave in 2010, many Republicans were sure Obama was destined for defeat in 2012. An incumbent who had presided over four years of high unemployment — and whose overwhelming unpopularity was discussed as an immutable fact on Fox News and talk radio — seemed ripe for the picking. His re-election has some party leaders worried that the GOP is out of step with demographic and ideological trends, preaching to a shrinking choir. They do not want to be what Congressman turned TV host Joe Scarborough has despairingly called “the stupid party,” with retro in-the-bubble ideas about rape, contraception and “self-deportation” that alienate a modern multicultural electorate.

But for all the punditry about a coming Republican civil war, it’s not clear that the party really wants to change in any serious way — or that it could change if it wanted to. Even GOP elites, while concerned that winnable races are being sacrificed on the altar of extremism, suggest that the party is likely to stay the course that worked in 2010. Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former Republican political consultant, has been a consistent voice for pragmatism over purity inside the party, but he doesn’t foresee any radical shifts after Tuesday’s split decision. “It’s sobering that we’re throwing away Senate seats. But I don’t see a great schism,” Cole says. “I see a very unified, very conservative party that’s very alarmed about the growth of government. Who would be the generals in our great civil war?”

Superglued to the Past
Just about all Republicans acknowledge their party’s demographic dilemma. The electorate keeps getting less white, less rural and less evangelical — in short, less traditionally Republican. Polls suggested that Obama was on track to receive more than 90% of the black vote and over two-thirds of the fast-growing Latino vote, while winning huge majorities among young voters, gays and single women. The homogeneity of the Republican conventioneers who nominated Romney in Tampa was striking, especially compared with the Democratic diversity on display the next week in Charlotte. It’s working for the GOP in the old Confederacy, but nobody thinks that’s sustainable nationwide in the long term.

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Some Republicans believe that the party needs to cut a deal with Obama on immigration reform so Latinos will stop seeing the party as a hostile force. New Mexico has morphed from swing state into blue state; Arizona may soon drift from red state to swing state. But others blame at least some of the GOP’s problems with voters of color on the unusual phenomenon of a President of color. They believe the party is gradually broadening its appeal, citing rising Hispanic stars like Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and newly elected Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina GOP Congressman, argues that his party doesn’t need to change its policies to pander to minorities; it just needs to work harder to sell its policies to them. “Are we more diverse now? Yes. By leaps and bounds? No,” he says. “We’ve got to reach out to a broader array of Americans. But we’ve still got to stay true to who we are and what we believe.”

It’s the “what we believe” part that could cause Republicans more problems down the road. In the Obama era, the GOP has coalesced around an agenda that in some ways simply denies reality, rejecting the science of climate change, insisting that government (except the Pentagon) is incapable of creating jobs, denouncing debt while proposing debt-exploding tax cuts. Some of its fire breathers argued last year that shutting down the federal government and even defaulting on its obligations could be good for the economy; more recently, its leaders suppressed a Congressional Research Service report questioning supply-side dogma. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, an accomplished fiscal conservative feared as a formidable potential opponent by Team Obama, may have doomed his primary chances with one tweet: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Republican voters did, but then polls show most GOP regulars don’t even believe Obama is a Christian, many doubt he is a native-born citizen, and few changed their mind after he released his birth certificate. In April 2011, the birther Donald Trump actually topped the Republican presidential-primary polls.

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Some elements of the Republican agenda are standard for a center-right party: lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation. But in the Obama era, the GOP has pushed far beyond center right. In 2008 every Republican presidential candidate had an economic-stimulus plan — Romney’s was the largest — and John McCain, the nominee, had a cap-and-trade plan for energy. By 2009 the GOP was united against stimulus, cap-and-tax and a health care plan nearly identical to the one Romney crafted in Massachusetts. Polls show increasing support in the U.S. for gay rights and broad support for clean energy, but most Republicans are superglued to the other side. The party has also doubled down on its unpopular efforts to protect Wall Street from regulation, eliminate funding for Big Bird and extend tax cuts for the rich. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, authored a bold plan to end Medicare’s guarantees and shrink nondefense spending, but it was so politically toxic that the Romney campaign abandoned it, relentlessly attacking Obama for Medicare cuts that were part of Ryan’s plan as well.

The GOP’s moderate wing has been dwindling for years. Olympia Snowe’s retirement and Scott Brown’s defeat will leave Susan Collins as about the only Republican centrist in the Senate. And on Capitol Hill, even pragmatically inclined conservatives have been reluctant to compromise with Obama on anything, aware that even minor deviations could inspire the free-market Club for Growth to bankroll a Tea Party primary challenge like the ones that ended the careers of Senators Bob Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana. Club for Growth president Chris Chocola recalls that Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who had a reputation as an ideological squish, called him the day after Bennett lost — and has been a reliable conservative ever since to protect his right flank. “Members take notice of what we do, and that’s great,” Chocola says. “We’re not interested in helping Republicans win a majority so they can grow government a bit slower than the Democrats. We want to elect principled fiscal conservatives.”

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To party elites like lobbyist Ed Rogers, there’s a fine line between principled fiscal conservatism, which he supports, and politically suicidal dogmatism, which leads to candidates like Akin and Mourdock. “We have an angry fist-shaking caucus that says losing with purity is better than winning with nuance, which is crazy,” Rogers says. For four years, Republican politicians have portrayed Obama as a dangerous radical and fought him full time. It’s going to be hard to cut deals with him to solve problems like the looming fiscal cliff without alienating Republican voters who believed what they said. “We’re probably one e-mail away from Benghazi being an impeachable offense for much of our party,” Rogers says. “I think that’s nuts, but that’s where we are right now.”

There are already signs that the party of no intends to continue its strategy of no. Even before the election, House Speaker John Boehner warned that he’d have a mandate too and that Obama would poison the well by pursuing Democratic priorities in a second term. “Obama seems to think that we’re going to have an epiphany and do what he wants us to do. That’s not going to happen,” says Cole, who is on the dealmaking side of the GOP divide. Rogers, another political pragmatist, is just as insistent that Republicans will not let Obama have his way. “You won’t see any me-too-ism. None. Zero,” he says. “Nothing about this election will diminish the right wing.”

How Long Will It Take?
The GOP response to huge losses in 2006 and 2008 was to move even further right. Many Republicans believe that President George W. Bush’s problem was overspending and that McCain was too liberal as well. That strategy worked in 2010, and many conservatives think it could have worked again in 2012 if Romney had been a credible spokesman for their principles. Chocola points out that his predecessor at the Club for Growth, Pat Toomey, is now a blue-state Senator from Pennsylvania. “There’s a great power in a clear message,” Chocola says. “Romney always had a sincerity problem.”

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As centrists have abandoned the GOP, the power of the base has gotten even stronger inside the party, further reducing the allure of centrist policies, which has further alienated centrists. It’s a closed feedback loop, and GOP veterans do not expect Tuesday’s disappointing but not catastrophic losses to break it before the next election cycle. The party’s voters and funders are not looking for compromise, so its leaders are likely to double down on fossil-fueled, Wall Street–friendly obstructionism. Ryan, a devout supply-sider who is also more socially conservative than Romney, is likely to emerge as an even more central player in Congress and in the offstage struggle to lead the party; Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have similar ideological profiles and ambitions. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had won fans with his aggressive liberal-bashing despite some policy moderation, infuriated many in the party with his enthusiastic praise of Obama after Hurricane Sandy.

Of course, 2016 is ages from now. While there will surely be some intraparty sniping during the next few months, for now, Republicans seem likely to stick with their playbook and cater to their base. Even as that base gets older, angrier and less representative of America.

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