How Do The Republicans Recover?

Marc Ambinder runs down the problems faced by the Republicans. His first point deals with a topic I discussed in several posts on after the election (including here and here) regarding the move by affluent, educated voters to the Democratic Party:

The class inversion. As described by Ron Brownstein, it’s the growing strengh of Democrats among a certain type of white, college-educated voter; Obama won 47% of these voters in 2008, the most ever for a Democrat, and the trend has been advancing.

This is very closely related to the Republican’s ties to the religious right, their hostility towards science and reason, and substitution of ideology for a reality-based view of the world. Many educated voters will not consider voting for a party with many members who are creationists, even if it means paying higher taxes or having some other policies they might otherwise not support.

Ambinder’s second point is that the Republicans will have a harder time recovering from being out of office than the Democrats did:

Party structure. Conservatives hold more sway in the Republican Party than liberals do in the Democratic party. To put it another way, conservatives make up a larger portion of the Republican base than liberals do of the Democratic base — a larger percentage, even of their national committee that liberals do in the DNC. Therefore, it’s more difficult for Republican candidates to challenge orthodoxy and dogma; it’s harder for a Bill Clinton figure to emerge.  You cannot build a Republican Party without social conservatives.

The Democrats not only had a Bill Clinton emerge, but also had a Barack Obama emerge to challenge the control by the Clintonistas. It is hard to imagine an analogous situation in which someone like Obama beats a strong presumptive candidate in the Republican Party.

These problems lead to Ambinder’s third point that the Republicans have little support outside of the south and some western states with few electoral votes. Demographics make the problem worse as minorities are less likely to support the Republicans.

Ambinder tries to look for solutions:

It’s hard to think of one  Republicans can’t win without social conservatives, and so they shouldn’t try to. They can’t win by “going back to their roots,” in part because that phrase is tautological and has no agreed upon meaning. By roots, does one mean anti-communism? Lower taxes? Cultural traditionalism? Libertarianism? It took Bill Clinton to bring Democrats out of their wilderness, but he took the party from point A to point B. Adapting conservative principles to modern developments like globalization is an obvious avenue to reform, but that’s easier said than done, and there are many in the party who believe that no change on policy is needed, just a new “tone.”

Ambinder argues that the Republicans can’t win with the social conservatives, but that is what dooms them in the long run. At present the Republicans cannot win a national election without bringing out the social conservatives in large numbers. However, it is this close connection to social conservatives which makes the affluent and educated voters vote against them, making it very difficult for Republicans to win a national election.

This dynamic could be seen in this year’s election. If McCain had run as a socially moderate centrist and had not have chosen a reactionary such as Sarah Palin as his running mate it is possible he would have done worse because many on the far right might have stayed home. However I felt that the moment McCain choose Palin he had made himself unelectable nationally, despite the short-lived bump until the country realized what Palin stood for. In addition, if McCain had lost as a centrist the Republican Party would have had something to build upon while out of office. Having made the Republican Party a party of the extreme right they not only lost this election but may have permanently lost both the educated/affluent vote as well as a whole generation of younger voters.

Supporting the policies of the social conservatives, along with their hostility to science and reason, is a losing proposition long term. Their views are only going to become more unpopular over time. The Republicans have dug themselves into a hole, and the first step to recovery is to stop digging–not accelerate the digging as many on the far right advocate.

In the past the Republicans managed to win by stringing along the social conservatives. They would play lip service to the religious right while calling them nuts behind their backs and trying to give them as little as possible once in office. George Bush changed this by actively pursuing the agenda of the religious right, even if Karl Rove continued to call them the nuts.  The moderates were driven out of the party, leaving the GOP firmly in the hands of the far right.

For a while the Republicans could win despite the baggage of the religious right by using tactics such as fear of terrorism or by demonizing the Democrats by distorting their positions. Such tactics have become decreasingly effective.  Republicans have lost their undeserved advantage on national security and their smears campaign against Obama was unsuccessful.

At present the Republicans have to hope that the Democrats screw up very badly, and it would be very hard to do a worse job than the Republicans have done in recent years. As long as they are tied down by the far right their decline will probably continue. If they jettison the religious right and the social conservatives they will have a hard time initially but at least they would be able to offer a viable option for those who disagree with Democratic policies. At present they provide such a terrible alternative that most educated people will see little choice but voting Democratic to avoid a repeat of the nightmare years under George Bush.

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