In an effort to rally a young Republican base after the 2008 presidential election, when Democratic Party identification among voters ages 18 to 29 was at its highest since 1972, Michael Steele announced that his new communications strategies were going to be “off the hook” and “beyond cutting edge.” Part of this approach was a redesign of the RNC website, which features a blog by Steele. When it launched, the blog was titled “What up?” but after considerable media mockery, it was changed overnight to “Change the Game.” Now it’s simply called “Steele’s Blog.” But has Steele and the national Republican Party really reached out to their young base and asked them “What up?”
Spend some time talking to college Republicans and you might find that the new GOP strategy really hasn’t been that “off the hook.” At a Columbia University College Republicans (CUCR) meeting, 21-year-old Learned Foote says proudly, “I hate Republicans.” He is a conservative but doesn’t align himself with the current GOP. Before moving to New York to attend Columbia, Foote lived in an evangelical household in the Midwest. Despite growing up in a Republican environment, he came of age during the abuses of the Bush era, and this undoubtedly informed his politics. He believes adamantly in the classic Goldwater conservative ideals of small government and limited spending, but feels like he hasn’t seen them executed in his lifetime. “[The Republican Party’s] allegiance to these ideas has been shaky in the past, never ideal, and horrendous in the past few years. I cannot wrap my mind around the bailouts exercised under George W. Bush…and I’m concerned by certain portions of the Patriot Act,” says Foote. He also seems to have little faith that if the Republicans were in office right now there would be real change either. “At the moment, most Republican leadership recycles talking points in response to the Democratic agenda.”
Derek Turner, communications director of the CUCR, expresses a similar dissatisfaction with the party. “There are far too many times where I am embarrassed of the Republican Party,” he says. “[It] is definitely in disarray…. We are in the midst of soul-searching.” Unfortunately, this soul-searching is playing out on a national stage, in which the Republicans with the loudest, most reactionary voices seem to make the strongest impression. Most recently, moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, who has been criticized for her prochoice views and support of gay marriage, dropped out of the race for an open Congressional seat in New York’s 23rd District. Scozzafava was pushed out by third-party candidate Douglass Hoffman, who was running on a far more conservative platform. After Scozzafava’s departure, Hoffman was quickly endorsed by the Republican National Committee. This fueled a national conversation about the role of moderates in the ‘new right.’ Right-wing activist Richard Viguerie took the opportunity to call out Scozzafava for being an “establishment Republican” and rhetorically forged a path for what he believes is the future of the GOP. On his website he triumphantly states, “Tea party activists are the new GOP.”
But contrary to Viguerie’s analysis, the far right’s domination of the media landscape doesn’t necessarily mean it represents the Republican Party writ large. While these college Republicans represent a small, particular demographic–living in blue states–as politically active young people, their ideas and intentions should be important to the Republican Party, especially when evaluating its future. Kevin Preskenis, 19, chief of staff of the Georgetown University College Republicans, wants the party to rein itself in from extremist rhetoric and instead focus on building a more concrete ideology. “We need to bring our party back to common sense and practical, pragmatic solutions for a lot of the problems we have right now.” In addition, Turner feels that in order for the GOP to regain power in the 2010 elections and eventually win the presidency in 2012, the “party [needs to] prove itself to be both ready to provide solutions, ready to go into action, as well as be applicable to today’s times…. We need to be focusing on our own party instead of trying to bring down the president.”
While these young conservatives may not present silver-bullet solutions to the GOP’s woes, they believe rebuilding the party shouldn’t take a back seat to birthers, deathers and the rest of the far-right fringe. David Laska, the 22-year-old president of New York University College Republicans, says, “We need to start paying less attention to the Tom Tancredo wing of the Republican Party. I don’t think that wing of the party is as big as some people make it out it be.” But if the Scozzafava dropout proves anything, it is that regardless of size, the far right is gaining not only airtime but actual influence within the GOP. For moderate young Republicans, it has become more important that they gain control of their own party than remove Democrats from power.
One way in which these young Republicans feel they can combat the unflattering image of what Laska calls the “Bible-thumping, immigrant- hating, closet racist Republican” is to try and steer the GOP back to ideological principles, to present a Republican Party that transcends stereotype. “There needs to be a time to establish a philosophical and ideological grounding to base the party off of,” says Turner. “I fear that the Republican Party is floating among the issues and taking shots at whatever they think is right.” As true arbiters of small government, they find their party’s obsession with upholding certain social values not necessarily productive for either society or the GOP’s popularity.
Laska concedes that there is a “something of an ideological divide” within the party: “Let’s face it: there is no reason that fiscal conservatism and social conservatism should necessarily go hand it hand. In many cases, they ought not to.” He even jokes, “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t have one.” Foote, who is gay, is particularly passionate about the way in which the conservative movement can change to be more accepting of different kinds of people when it comes to the so-called wedge issues. “The Republican Party can [be] prone to using the power of the state to inculcate certain notions of morality, which I believe is harmful to religious and personal freedom,” says Foote. “I also think [the party] should work to incorporate some of the traditional emphases of the Democratic Party.”
Andrew Clark, communications director of the George Washington University College Republicans, like Foote, sees an opportunity for the Republican and Democratic viewpoints to assimilate somewhat on social issues. While he identifies with social conservatives, on a national scale he finds the economic issues more “important and intense.” Clark also foresees a major shift in how the country views these issues in the future. “I think what is ultimately going to happen in the next decade or so is that we are going to have a fusion of conservative and liberal ideals, and we are going to become a more…libertarian country,” he says.
A Pew study released after the 2008 presidential election found a major shift in political affiliation among young people in America. Among those ages 18 to 29, there was a 19-point spread separating Democratic and Republican affiliation, with 45 percent aligning themselves with the Democratic Party and only 26 percent with the Republican Party. These young Republicans seem to grasp just how damaging further erosion of support from young people could be for the GOP. Instead of redesigning websites and coming up with clever names for blogs, the national Republican leadership could listen to leaders within campus communities more. And if the GOP is lucky, this just might bring it into the twenty-first century.