Whither Republican Party?

I do enjoy a good circular firing squad.  It’s not a matter of gloating over Republicans’ post-Election disappointment (though I will insist that worse things have happened to less-deserving people), but because I’m intrigued to see how the Republican Party reinvents itself as I was eager to see how it would reinvent itself in early-2009.  As it turned out, the growing frustration of Conservatives with outgoing President George W. Bush’s several Progressive initiatives targeted at suburban soccer moms (the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act for education), senior citizens (the 2003 Prescription Drug Benefit), and Hispanics (the President’s well-thought-out but failed 2007 initiative that would have given undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship)–not to mention the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program, also known as the “Bank Bailout”–led to a limited-government and often anti-immigrant rebellion from the Republican base.

The 178 Representatives and 40 Senators who formed the rump of Congressional Republicans in the 111th Congress of course tended to be from the most safely-Republican Congressional Districts and States; as such, they tended to be the most-Conservative members.  The 87 Republican freshmen who joined their ranks in the House–36% of the House Republican Conference in the 112th Congress–and the 14 Republican freshmen in the Senate–30% of the Senate Republican Conference–were definitely more-Conservative overall than the Republicans they replaced.  Several of those who entered the Senate had previously served in the much more-partisan House of Representatives; many in both chambers had been elected explicitly on a message of cutting Federal Government spending and regulations, both of which they could now conveniently lay at the feet of President Obama (George W. Bush’s demons of inclusion having been thoroughly expunged from the Republican Party).

What followed, shockingly-enough, was 2 years of brinksmanship between the most-Liberal President in almost 40 years and the most-Conservative Congress in at least 62 years.  Though his support attenuated in some parts of the country (inevitable to an extent, given the strong reaction against George W. Bush and Republicans generally in the midst of the ongoing Iraq War and the 2008 Financial Crash), President Obama was re-elected by a sound margin, 51%-48% in the popular vote and 332-206 in the Electoral College.  While President Obama’s support nationwide wasn’t very deep, it was actually very-stable in the polling.  The President took 9 out of 10 swing States, leaving only North Carolina to Governor Romney, in a result that polling averages had usually predicted since late-June.

According to the exit polls, this result came about because a coalition of out-groups turned-out solidly for President Obama–single women (68%), the under-30 crowd (60%), Americans making under $30,000 in income (63%), Blacks (93%), Hispanics (71%), Asian-Americans (73%), gays and lesbians (76%).  These groups are generally growing (or at least not shrinking), and while the existing under-30 crowd are of course aging-out of that demographic, their reasons for supporting President Obama are often generational (greater tolerance of different lifestyles such as homosexuality, looser attachment to religion or atheism, being comparatively…cool with Obama), and not likely to change as they age.  The simple fact, as I’ve already said before and as indeed we’ve heard many times in the past 11 days, is that the Republican Party’s base is smaller than the Democratic Party’s base, and their base is shrinking while the Democrats’ is growing.  Higher turnout in Midterm Elections and wider geographic dispersion of Republicans may help mitigate their downward electoral trajectory, but it is a downward electoral trajectory nonetheless.

Looking back, the Presidential Elections from 2000 on reflect this trend; while Republican George W. Bush was re-elected President in 2004 with a majority of the vote, it took the threat of religious terrorism and the Iraq War to stack the election narrative in the incumbent’s favor, and his outreach to various normally-Democratic constituencies allowed W. to be competitive with those constituencies, which was enough.  But of course, President W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservative” left-right policy heterodoxy fell apart quickly in his 2nd term with the failure of tax reform, Social Security investment accounts (thank the divines!), and his quite-good guest worker proposal for illegal immigrants–as well as the mounting deficits brought-on by Bush’s bad habit of cutting taxes and increasing spending, regardless of whether the economy was doing well or if we were already at war.  Voters punished the Republicans for following his lead in 2006 and 2008, and the Conservatives took control of the rump Republican Party, something they had been wanting to do at least since the creation of the Prescription Drug Benefit and the passage of the Federal Budget in 2003.

Then the Republicans took the Governors’ mansions in New Jersey and Virginia in 2009, and had a fantastically good year in all but the Bluest of States in 2010.

Looking back, though, even in 2010 there was an early indication of the narrowing of the Republicans’ base: In Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico–generally considered swing States before 2008–both 1st-time and incumbent Democrats in both State-wide and down-ballot races held-on in numerous cases where it was unexpected.  Colorado was even previously thought of as more of a Red State.

Then came 2012.  Virtually all serious Republican prognosticators, including many not attached to the Romney campaign or to Republican campaign efforts in any way such as George Will and Michael Barone, predicted a Romney blowout on November 6th.  What they got was a Romney fizzle.  Most of them made the same argument: “Sure, the swing State polls have indicated President Obama will get re-elected almost constantly, but they’re wrong; they assume a lot of minorities and under-30s will turn-out to vote like they did in 2008, and they’re wrong about that.  They’ll stay home.”  Actually, most pollsters weren’t making assumptions about which demographics would turn-out to vote when they conducted their polls; it was Republican strategists who were making assumptions about who wouldn’t turn-out to vote, a critical mistake for political strategists and election handicappers to make.  Pollsters like Rasmussen, which were popular with Republicans, actually assumed more Republicans would turn-out to vote than Democrats and never modified those assumptions; as a result Rasmussen proved 1 of the most-misleading pollsters of this election cycle.

In any case, the young and minority voters did turn-out in 2010 like in 2008, and they and other constituencies, sickened as they were by various statements and policy actions that strongly suggested…well, bigotry and callousness on the part of Republican candidates, engaged in straight-ticket voting for Democrats.  In addition to Governor Romney’s unambiguous loss in the Presidential race, Republicans lost Senate races in Indiana and Missouri for no other reason than because insurgent candidates who upset establishment choices and won the Senate primaries there were too Conservative for Indiana and Missouri.  Swing State Wisconsin, which by all accounts is pleased with its Republican State government, just elected 1 of the most-Liberal members of the House Democratic Caucus, Tammy Baldwin, to the Senate over Tommy Thompson, a popular former Governor who is a well-reputed moderate and was George W. Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.  Wisconsinites appear to have been averse to giving Republicans more power in the US Senate on principle.

While Republican partisanship has been the primary source of gridlock in the Senate, however, many of the 14 freshmen Republican Senators in the 112th Congress were so untrusting of their own party leadership that they repeatedly helped Senate Democrats defeat Republican bills.

So, Republicans are getting ruled-out of previously-safe races because they are too Conservative, but Republican primary voters thus far have insisted on nominating more Conservatives.  And when these Conservatives actually do get elected–think Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and the more-senior Jim DeMint (R-SC)–they vote against their own party conference–often with the Democrats–because their party’s proposals aren’t Conservative-enough for them.  But now that many Conservatives have lost their Senate bids (George Allen in Virginia, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Todd Akin in Missouri), help isn’t coming.  Rather than marking the start of a new movement, these Senate Republicans are now just stationary spoilers for Mitch McConnell to deal with.

Consider the recent disposition of so many rank-and-file and elected Republicans–the emotive town hall-crashing during the 2009 informational sessions on the health care law, the Conservative wave in Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012, the intransigence or preference for confrontation of so many recently-elected Republican politicians, perhaps peaking in some of the curiosities and high-profile embarrassments to come out of the Republican Presidential Primary debates.  Republicans have been undergoing their party’s equivalent of 1971-1972 for the Democrats.  The Republican Party’s nominating process used to be pretty elite-driven.  There is mounting evidence that this was much better for the party, but there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.  The Republican Party as an institution has stoked mistrust of elites to electoral advantage for 40 years, but its elites (however-Conservative) aren’t able to exempt themselves anymore.  The Tea Party insurgents may have improved turnout for the favorably-districted and comparatively low-scrutiny House of Representatives (at least in their initial election in 2010), but in the Senate there’s really no question in my mind that Tea Party insurgent candidates have turned what by now could reasonably be a 55-45 Republican majority into the reverse.

If you consider how stubborn new Republicans like Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) have been about voting their conscience, their presence in both the House and Senate has actually made John Boehner and especially Mitch McConnell weaker, not stronger. My party essentially cannot win Senate seats in Kentucky and Utah, but we can sometimes count on Paul and Lee and the like to vote with the Democrats on some measures, or at least not to support bills promoted by Boehner and McConnell. So this shift to the right in recent House and Senate candidates has often weakened Congressional Republicans’ ability to promote their agenda even when they win safe elections.

I understand why Republicans might want to narrowly-interpret the problem as candidate weakness, considering that some Senate candidates who were just plain stupid threw races that Republicans would normally win in Missouri and Indiana.  But that doesn’t explain what happened in other States this year.  Olympia Snowe didn’t retire because she couldn’t win the Maine Senate primary; she retired because she concluded partisan gridlock was preventing her from doing her job.  Nominating and electing more ideological Republicans, even if they are relatively competent like Marco Rubio (R-FL), will make this problem worse, not better.  Just look at the vote record.

Rick Berg in North Dakota and Denny Rehberg in Montana were probably the best Republican Senate candidates available in their respective States this year; particularly Congressman Berg’s failure to win his race against a newcomer in a very-Republican State that wants the Keystone XL Pipeline built as quickly as possible, is a setback of significance. Berg and Rehberg didn’t really make any attention-grabbing missteps on the campaign trail (though Rehberg had some issues, such as a municipal lawsuit).  To say that personality issues tanked Republican candidates in these States is to ignore a real problem the Republican Party has.  What I think we’re seeing is that there isn’t a majority constituency for Conservative government in America; people merely liked the way its sentiments sounded.  When the public sees candidates who take their ideologies literally and seriously, Republicans lose support.

It’s hard to “factor-out” some contingent circumstances, but Vice President Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and President Bush won it in 2004 after No Child Left Behind, the massive Prescription Drug Benefit, aggressive and meaningful outreach to Hispanics and consistent messaging of the fighting terrorism/wartime issue.  In 2008 the post-Iraq, post-Financial Crash reaction against Republicans was so strong that it was possible to hedge on what Senator Obama’s 53%-46% blowout of Senator McCain meant.  But 2012, I think, was as fair of a fight as we’ve had in Presidential politics since at least 2000.  The Republicans ran on their best version of a Conservative argument; the Democrats ran on their best version of a Liberal argument.  The simple fact is that since the end of the Clinton years we’ve been in a steady demographic trend where it’s getting easier and easier for Democrats to get elected President running on their base, and harder and harder for Republicans to get elected President running on theirs.  Because it’s comparatively-easy for Republicans to win legislative races in more-diffuse districts at the same time, they are able to hedge on this fact, but it seems to be a fact nonetheless.

This isn’t to say the Republican Party can or should stop being the party for Conservatives, but they do need to find a formula for George W. Bush-style policy and social outreach to appeal to women and minorities that they can live with.  The Republican ideology must become heterodox, because the Republican base must become heterogeneous. Or Republicans could just ignore the very-straightforward message their party just received. The exit polls have never been more-revealing.  If the Republicans somehow conclude that what they need is better data-mining for Conservative voters and better candidate recruitment and message-control, I think my party will be in pretty good shape in 2016.

But time flows like a river.  As much as we get it down to a science, politics is about arbitraging hitherto-undetected trends and movement in society.  Democrats can be pardoned if they’ve forgotten of late, but the Republican Party definitely has an intelligentsia.  Some of them–many who work at FOX News or the National Review–went into stunned temper tantrums.  But many took the 2012 loss gracefully, as an opportunity to learn, and went straight back to the drawing-board.  Their recommendations are preliminary, of course, but some of them are discerning.  It’s not too early to discuss them.

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