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Conservatives Understand the GOP's Problem but Not Its Solution | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Conservatives Understand the GOP's Problem but Not Its Solution

In the wake of President Obama’s decisive re-election victory on Tuesday, the more intellectually serious members of the conservative commentariat are in post-mortem mode. They are asking what went wrong and how they can avoid a third consecutive loss in 2016. Unfortunately for them, they display only a limited understanding of the Republican Party’s problem, and virtually no understanding of its underlying cause or its solution.

On Fox News Tuesday night former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, showed that he understands why they lost. “I think Republicans have done a pathetic job of reaching out to people of color, something we’ve gotta work on.” But, as is the case with all his co-partisans, Huckabee assumes it’s purely question of outreach, rather than those voters making a perfectly well-informed decision based on the GOP’s platform. “It’s a group of people that frankly should be with us based on the real policy of conservativism [sic]. But Republicans have acted as if they can’t get the vote, so they don’t try. And the result is they don’t get the vote.”

The primary impulse among conservative pundits seems to be blaming the poor quality of their candidates. For those who are on the insurgent right, such as Red State’s Erick Erickson, that means complaining about Mitt Romney but not the extremist ideologues who lost winnable Senate races, such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. For Beltway insiders, such as The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes and the Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson, that means complaining about Senate candidates and Romney’s clownish opponents in the Republican primaries.

“What’s [Republicans’] problem?” asks Barnes. “In Senate races, it’s bad candidates: old hacks (Wisconsin), young hacks (Florida), youngsters (Ohio), Tea Party types who can’t talk about abortion sensibly (Missouri, Indiana), retreads (Virginia), lousy campaigners (North Dakota) and Washington veterans (Michigan). Losers all.”

Erickson is similarly hard on Romney, writing: “If Republicans are honest, they’ll have to concede that the Romney campaign ran a bad campaign and only almost won because the President had a bad debate.”

Carlson and Neil Patel issue a similar complaint, but admit that their alternatives were even worse:

Romney’s caution and ever-shifting policy positions made him seem fearful, which is to say weak. His biography hurt him. During a cycle when voters remained angry at Wall Street, Romney bore the weight of a finance background. And because of his own history in Massachusetts, he could never effectively go after President Obama on Obamacare, the president’s biggest political weakness.

None of this was ever a secret, but the Republicans nominated Romney anyway. They had no choice. The alternatives were unacceptable.

They then move on, as if the weakness of their presidential field was merely bad luck. In fact, it is what a party that rejects modern science and enlightenment reasoning produces. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are not an aberration in the Republican Party. They are its apotheosis.

Barnes is dismissive of any serious soul-searching, suggesting they just need younger, more conservative salesmen. "There was [a] huge hole in the GOP field,” Barnes whines. “The entire younger generation of smart, attractive Republicans didn’t run: Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Pat Toomey. They were missed. Several of them might have been stronger presidential candidates than Romney. No doubt some or all of them will run in 2016. They represent the Republican future in the best possible way. They are the heirs of Ronald Reagan and advocates of a reform conservatism that is more relevant than ever, given the country’s fiscal mess and foreign policy troubles.”

Barnes and Erickson also agree that Republicans would be more likely to win if they went even further to the right. “No doubt the media will insist that Republicans must change, must sprint to the center, must embrace social liberalism, must accept that America is destined to play a less dominant role in the world,” Barnes snorts. “All that is hogwash, which is why Republicans are likely to reject it. Their ideology is not a problem.” All Barnes offers is assertion. He gives no evidence that their commitment to stealing from the poor to give to the rich might have something to do with exit polls showing that Romney’s biggest weakness was among voters who chose the candidate who they thought cared most about people like themselves.

Strangely Barnes comprehends some of the math of this problem, just not its clear implications. “But there is also a hole in the Republican electorate,” he writes. “There aren’t enough Hispanics.  As long as two-thirds of the growing Hispanic voting bloc lines up with Democrats, it will be increasingly difficult (though hardly impossible) for Republicans to win national elections.” But Barnes appears totally uninterested in examining why Republicans are so unpopular among Hispanics. To his mind their right-wing views on immigration and economic issues pose no political problem, and yet their unpopularity among Latinos does. Barnes is so ideologically blinkered that he cannot process the obvious implication of his own observation.

Other conservatives understand the demographic problem with a good deal more nuance. Ross Douthat of The New York Times writes:

The coalition that Barack Obama put together to win the presidency handily in 2008 looked a lot like the emerging Democratic majority that optimistic liberals had been discerning on the political horizon since the 1990s. It was the late George McGovern’s losing coalition from 1972 finally come of age: young voters, the unmarried, African-Americans, Hispanics, the liberal professional class—and then more than enough of the party’s old blue collar base to hold the Rust Belt for the Democrats….

But the lesson of the election is that the Obama coalition was truly vulnerable only to a Republican Party that took Obama seriously as an opponent—that understood how his majority had been built, why voters had joined it and why the conservative majority of the Reagan and Bush eras had unraveled….

 

You could see this belief at work in the confidence with which many conservatives insisted that the Obama presidency was not only embattled but self-evidently disastrous, in the way so many voices on the right sought to raise the ideological stakes at every opportunity, in the widespread conviction that the starker conservatives made the choice between left and right, the more votes they would win.

The base still wants to raise the ideological stakes and make the choice starker. In Erickson’s mind, the GOP has no larger electoral handicap, other than timidity. “The question we are going to have to assess is whether Barack Obama’s coalition is a Democratic coalition or a Barack Obama coalition,” writes Erickson. “My personal opinion is that Barack Obama built a winning coalition for Barack Obama and it may not translate to a long-term Democratic coalition. Just ask Minority Leader Pelosi and that now endangered creature known as the Democratic Governor.” It is certainly possible that Obama appealed slightly more to young people and minorities, or brought them to the polls more, than Hillary Clinton would have. But Erickson’s example of congressional and gubernatorial elections is misleading. Republicans performed better in those races in 2009 and 2010 because the electorate in off-year elections is older and whiter than in presidential years. Those races do not prove that Republicans will not be at a disadvantage every four years.

Ironically, while Barnes and Douthat offer no substantive policy response to the GOP’s demographic challenge, Erickson does. Republicans, he writes, “will be forced to deal rationally and charitably with the issue of immigration.” It is striking that—other than a few Republican strategists such as Mike Murphy—Erickson’s admission is an unusual one. The general preference is to just blame it on the candidates and hope for better ones next time.

There is no question Republicans drew some lousy candidates. But that does not mean they do not also face structural problems. Some even acknowledge, broadly, that they are out of step with the country ideologically and not just doomed by identity politics. “America isn’t getting any more conservative,” write Carlson and Patel. “It’s no longer sufficient to recite bumper stickers about American exceptionalism and bow to Reagan’s memory, if it ever was. You have to make the case to the unconvinced.” But they punt on the question of what that means in terms of specific issues and what to do about it. “In order to remain competitive outside Utah, the GOP will have to win new voters, and soon,” they conclude. “That’s the Republican reformation plan, Stage B. They may get there. First they’ll have to tackle the basics, like finding fresh leadership and candidates who aren’t embarrassing.”

What Carlson and Patel ignore is that their candidates are embarrassing because of the party’s far-right conservatism. It is not some mere coincidence that they had multiple candidates who made unpopular remarks about how women should carry every fetus to term, even if they were raped. The GOP platform calls for banning abortion in all cases, with no exception for rape. If your policies are extremist, intolerant or grounded in ignorance, then your candidates will be ignorant, intolerant extremists. And they will say stupid things in defense of those same policies.

If Republicans are going to win over growing constituencies, they will have to moderate their stances on social issues. But if they do that they will face backlash and possible defection to third parties from social conservatives. “There is not a path Republicans can take that does not jeopardize a crucial voting bloc for Republicans,” says Republican strategist Jon Henke.

Perhaps, by fretting over single women and Latinos, they are looking in the wrong place. If you size up Obama’s coalition, it is clear that he still relies upon a respectable showing among white working class voters in the Upper Midwest to put him over the top in that crucial region. States such as Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio are whiter and less educated than the country as a whole. Unlike their counterparts in the South, working class whites in the Midwest do not heavily favor Republicans.

So Romney’s best hope of winning would have been to convert enough of those voters to swing a few of those states. The problem for Romney is that his campaign utterly failed to do this. Several reporters on both the right (Kevin Williamson and Katrina Trinko in National Review) and left (Alec MacGillis and Noam Scheiber in The New Republic) explain why. In essence, Romney allowed himself to be depicted as an out of touch plutocrat who didn’t understand or care about the “47 percent.”

Scheiber, MacGillis and Trinko argue that Romney’s perception problem was his fault. Scheiber and MacGillis focus on policy questions, such as Romney’s insistence upon campaigning on generous tax breaks for himself and reducing social spending on the needy. Trinko thinks the problem is more one of how Romney’s biography and persona was perceived, arguing that he could have corrected it through talking about his personal acts of charity and compassion.

“Romney shouldn’t have needed the uproar over the 47 percent remark to cause him to say I care about 100 percent of Americans,” writes Trinko. “He should have said it before then.” That’s true. But if his policies demonstrated only concern for the 1 percent, would falsely claiming to care about the rest of the country have convinced them that he actually does?

Williamson complains that Romney was perceived as uncaring because “most voters do not have anything like the economic sophistication even to understand what Romney did at Bain Capital, much less how such private-equity firms provide real economic benefits.” Williamson also bemoans the fact that, “Class warfare works.” He concludes: “offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives.”

What Williamson fails to recognize is that Obama’s policies do offer Americans the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives. For example, Obama offers Americans who want to better their career prospects through education assistance in paying for it. Romney suggested that young people borrow money from their parents, as if everyone’s parents have money to lend. Obama offers Americans who want to buy health insurance, rather than mooching off free emergency room care as Romney recommended, but may have pre-existing conditions the opportunity and responsibility to do so.

Back in 2005, Douthat and Reihan Salam saw how important working-class voters had become to the Republicans’ electoral prospects and recommended in their book Grand New Party that the GOP adopt a platform that actually offers them something besides pandering to their presumed xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia. Douthat and Salam understand, as Williamson fails to, that conservatives can support a government that empowers average Americans to build economic stability, strong families and strong communities. The problem is that Republicans have become disdainful of policies—from healthcare reform to the Earned Income Tax Credit—that actually achieve that.

Republicans—even a rich, spoiled brat like George W. Bush—have more successfully than Romney suckered some of the working class into believing he cares about them. Folksy mannerisms help. But so do policies. By embracing education reform instead of calling for the Department of Education’s abolition, Bush made at least a minor concession to the notion of offering poor children a bootstrap with which to pull themselves upward. And even Bush lost the popular vote in 2000. Democrats have won the plurality in five of the last six presidential elections. Right now, it seems that Republicans and conservative pundits have no idea how to address that other than nominating cleverer candidates.

If people of color weren’t going to vote Republican, Republicans wanted to keep them from voting at all. Check out Ari Berman on “How the GOP’s War on Voting Backfired.”

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