Can the GOP Transform Itself?

As the battle rages within the Republican party over how to broaden their appeal without losing the base on issues like immigration, gay rights and such, Nate Cohn suggests some ways that the GOP can change its platform without giving up the core of their beliefs and preferred policies.

In the absence of great data on what the GOP should do, analysts and pundits are mainly resorting to what they do best: assuming that what they want is what the country wants. The more culturally liberal Republicans want the GOP to move left on social issues. The populists think populism would do the trick. The conservatives say they should go to the right. It’s all too predictable.

But there are limits to these targeted approaches. For one, parties can’t just excise parts of their base and win elections, especially when they’re the minority party. Moreover, any realistic solution won’t lead to massive gains: Republicans would still be vulnerable to Democratic attacks on their support for cutting entitlements or lower taxes for the rich, or opposition to abortion, gun control, and probably gay marriage. That limits how much they can gain among any particular group. Democrats also have the ideological flexibility to embrace good ideas and co-opt a strong Republican message, as they have done on energy. The Electoral College also makes it harder for a party to win with narrow, deep gains among any single group, like missing conservative white voters or Hispanics—there just aren’t enough them in the critical states. The GOP has a broad problem across a very diverse set of battleground states, and it will require an equally broad set of remedies.

So the best option is to spread the pain around. Don’t castrate the party, smooth out the many sharp edges of the GOP’s platform and message. Keep supporting tax cuts and less regulation, but add an agenda and message aimed at the middle and working class. Remain pro-life, but don’t appear opposed to Planned Parenthood or contraceptives, and return to supporting exceptions in instances of rape or the health of the mother, as President Bush did. Stay committed to religion, but don’t reflexively doubt the science of evolution and global warming, or the promise of stem cell research or renewable energy. Oppose gun control, but why force yourself to oppose background checks? Oppose gay marriage if Republicans must, but could Republicans at least support civil unions? On all of these issues, the GOP need not compromise on its core policy objectives, but can’t afford to consistently stake out ground so far from the center. That allows Democrats to cast the party and their core beliefs outside of the mainstream, which has already happened on abortion.

Andrew Sullivan thinks this is highly unlikely:

But they won’t because moderation is anathema to them. They have become a doctrinal party in which doctrine is eternally true and cannot be changed – whether that is reflected by the view that tax cuts are the solution to every economic problem, that no accommodation to gays can be made at all, that climate change is a hoax, or that all abortion is cold-blooded murder, etc…

They’re fanatics, much more interested in the ideological posture of purity than the compromises of government. So they will block all compromise. They know not what else to do.

And the Tea Party movement has only exacerbated that problem, as I predicted it would even as they were harnessing the energy of that movement to take control of the House in 2010. The dilemma is obvious: How do they hold on to the base and appeal to other segments of voters at the same time? It isn’t going to be easy for them. But I do think we’re seeing the beginning of that process, with people like Mark Kirk, Rob Portman and Lisa Murkowski coming out in favor of marriage equality and making a conservative argument for that position.

And don’t kid yourself into thinking that these problems mean they can’t win elections until they’ve fixed them. There’s a very good change that they’re going to win control of the Senate next year and the presidency in 2016, despite those well-documented demographic problems. If they do, however, I expect it will only delay the necessary moderation on key issues.

34 comments on this post.
  1. garnetstar:

    Why do you think the Republicans might win the presidency in 2016? I don’t see that any viable candidate has yet emerged?

  2. laurentweppe:

    The core of the current GOP’s wickedness comes from the fact that its raison d’être is the preservation of the wealth, privilege and lavish lifestyle of a parasitic de facto hereditary aristocracy. So long as the right-wing remain the lackeys of the inept rich, no change is to be expected.

  3. reinderdijkhuis:

    One can always hope that the GOP transforms itself into a newt.

  4. raven:

    I don’t see any change in the GOP.

    The Tea Party is the GOP. If anything they are getting more extreme.

    1. Look at the last presidential election. The candidates were all clowns, kooks, and delusional idiots. Except John Huntsman. Who came in…last.

    Romney was just the least crazy of the bunch.

    2. Look at who their most visible members are. Bachmann, Perry, Gohmert, King, Lamar Smith, Rand Paul, Ryan, Palin and an ever increasing parade of kooks.

    The normal people seem to have just given up and left the party.

  5. dingojack:

    reinderdijkhuis – they tried that in the run-up to the last election,,,,,,,

    ….. oh, it got better.

    Dingo

  6. Modusoperandi:

    But they already have an agenda for “the middle and working class”; knock the former down in to the latter and blame it on taxes and hispanics. And they do support contraception, as long as it’s abstinence. And they do support exemptions for abortion in instances of “rape or the health of the mother”, as long as it doesn’t have exemptions for abortion in instances of rape or the health of the mother. And they already…etc, etc.
    I mean, golly, how much more do they have to soften their extremism?

  7. unemployedphilosopher:

    Is it just me, or did anybody else read the title of this post and reflexively imagine Eric Cantor with Starscream’s voice saying something like “But, Mighty Speaker…”?

  8. composer99:

    The GOP tried to ride the tiger without a plan for getting off the tiger’s back without getting bit, or even for killing the tiger if it got out of control.

    And now the tiger has taken over the reins.

    Sullivan’s final words pretty much sum up why the “base” that has secured control of the party can’t or won’t make changes:

    They’re fanatics, much more interested in the ideological posture of purity than the compromises of government. So they will block all compromise. They know not what else to do.

  9. Chiroptera:

    What analyses like this forget (or at least they don’t explicitly acknoeledge) is that parties don’t exist just to win elections. They exist to promote and enact policies the policies based on the beliefs — sometimes a well-defined ideology — of the party’s supporters. Despite your grandparents’ stories about being fifth generation Republicans or whatever, most people aren’t loyal to the party, they are loyal to the programs and beliefs the party supports, although inertia may keep a person or a group within the fold for a while until they realize the party has moved on.

    It may very well be true that if the Republican “moderates” don’t pander to the racism and misogyny and homophobia of the Tea Party faction the Tea Party won’t support the Republicans — but then, they won’t have a reason to support the Republicans beyond their version of the “lesser to two evils” argument.

    While I do find these analyses interesting for a study in strategies, I get the impression that a lot of people think that the two major US parties exist just to win elections, that they want to win just for the sake of winning. I dunno, maybe that is what the party leaders think. But I suspect that most of the devoted rank and file have definite ideas of why their party should win, and of course strategies need to take this into account.

  10. eric:

    I am not sure a complete reversal on some of these issues is out of the question. If you look at free trade, you had both parties supporting it back in Bush I/early Clinton, and now its basically anathema. The parties have done a complete about-face on that issue in less than 20 years. The GOP also did a complete about-face on environmentalism between Nixon and Reagan. It is not hard for me to think of the GOP 2033 platform having done a complete about-face on one or more current issues. My bet would be on them becoming pro-immigration or pro-gay, because corporations like cheap labor and the younger generation will not have much tolerance for anti-gay bigotry, respectively…but that’s only a wag.

    The point is, it is not historically accurate to claim that major changes to party platforms can’t happen or don’t happen in historically short time periods. They do. Predicting which issues will change is a bit of a crap shoot, but predicting there will be significant change over the next 20 years is (IMO) a pretty good bet.

  11. exdrone:

    The GOP used to do well by making promises to the extremes of their base and then ignoring them after they got in. I guess those days are over. It seems to me that they could attract the centre by adopting a fiscally conservative/socially neutral platform. They could put their social agenda on hiatus without abandoning it in principle for the purpose of fully attending to their fiscal agenda. Of course, they would also have to be willing to compromise on solutions as well. The centre would find this old-style Republicanism attractive if they could trust it, but the party is so entreched that it is an unrealistic proposal.

  12. raven:

    What is eerie and alarming about the GOP is that they seem to have adopted treason as their guiding principle.

    1. The current congress seems to be deliberately doing nothing but trying to make sure Obama fail.

    It’s obstructionism all the time. They aren’t governing the USA, they are damaging it.

    2. This is while they are out of power. Imagine what they would do with power.

    3. The Bush Catastrophe did huge damage to the USA and our economy. It produced a lost generation that is projected to recover by 2018. Maybe. Obama with some success has just spent 5 years fixing their mistakes.

    The voters still elected him once and reelected him. Romney did well considering, 47% of the vote.

    Oh well, you can’t just blame the Tea Party. Dogs will be dogs. It’s the voters who elect them.

    The Buddhists say everything is about the way it should be. Which is just saying that the present is the sum total of the Karma of the past.

    If a majority of voters in the USA vote for national suicide, it will just happen and the rest of us will go down with them. Go peacefully but not quietly. Rage against the New Dark Age. It might be all you can do.

  13. richardelguru:

    reinderdijkhuis
    But will it get better?

  14. dingojack:

    richardelguru – Is yours the Continental version?
    Dingo

  15. eric:

    They could put their social agenda on hiatus without abandoning it in principle for the purpose of fully attending to their fiscal agenda.

    The social agenda IS the GOP for a considerable portion of conservative voters. I would guess a majority, in fact, with the true fiscal conservatives (i.e., the people do don’t care about the social stuff) being a minority of the current party makeup.

  16. w00dview:

    The point is, it is not historically accurate to claim that major changes to party platforms can’t happen or don’t happen in historically short time periods. They do. Predicting which issues will change is a bit of a crap shoot, but predicting there will be significant change over the next 20 years is (IMO) a pretty good bet.

    I am predicting that in 20 years when the reality of global warming is too blindingly obvious that even the most die hard GOP base voters can see how it is affecting them then the GOP will try to airbrush history and in a slimy cynical ploy to get votes in red states will say that why, they always supported the science of climate change and wanted to do something to prevent it from getting this bad but it was those damn climate change deniers in the Democratic Party and evil libruls who stopped them from enacting any serious legislation! Just like how they try to get people to ignore the Southern Strategy and convince people that hey, they totes love black people because Lincoln freed the slaves! They will never accept responsibility for the suffering caused by their policies so just lie enough and hope people will shift the blame from them onto someone else. The Republican Party, the party of personal responsibility!

  17. dingojack:

    w00dview – considering how poorly the PoG did with Black voters last election, I don’t think the Southern Strategy has been forgotten in the least (that and their blatantly racist crap they tend to pull).
    Dingo

  18. Michael Heath:

    garnetstar @ 1 writes to Ed given Ed’s conclusions the GOP has a viable shot in 2016:

    Why do you think the Republicans might win the presidency in 2016? I don’t see that any viable candidate has yet emerged?

    There’s a pattern where the other party wins after a two-term presidency ends. Incumbent parties who overcome this hurdle do so by developing their VP into the heir apparent. E.g., H.W. Bush in 1988; where Al Gore idiotically disassociated himself with Bill Clinton in 2000.

    We see the challenger advantage amplified in 2016 given President Obama’s risky succession planning. I.e., VP Biden’s age and non-viability as a stand-alone candidate, Hillary Clinton’s age, no other senior official getting rotated through the Executive branch to set them up as the heir apparent.

  19. raven:

    I am predicting that in 20 years when the reality of global warming is too blindingly obvious that even the most die hard GOP base voters can see how it is affecting them …

    Probably not.

    Global warming denialism is already dying out. It isn’t a future possibility. It’s here now.

    1. We aren’t going to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s not even obvious that we can stop without crashing our civilization.

    Our last achievement in this area was to invent fracking so we could get at more hydrocarbons It’s been a great success and the USA is now once again a leading oil producer.

    2. What we will do is adapt. This isn’t vountary, it is mandatory. Global warming will occur whether anyone believes in it or not.

    It’s estimated that it will cost 1/2 to $1 trillion for the USA in the 21st century. Already it is happening. New York is planning a $20 billion upgrade to coastal sea level defenses. New Jersey is buying some properties as part of a strategic retreat program And it is just starting.

    Here in the west and southwest, we are seeing another side of it. Dying forests and more and more wild fires.

  20. w00dview:

    Dingojack – Ethnic minorities themselves know how to be wary of the GOP but I’m talking about how they communicate to their own base and how they manage to maintain these lies. Wingnuts love pulling out the “Nuh-uh, Liberals are the REAL RACISTS because the Democrats supported slavery back then!” card. I reckon they will be pulling similar mental knots to disassociate themselves from climate denial when shit hits the fan.

  21. velociraptor:

    @ raven @ 12:

    “The voters still elected him once and reelected him. Romney did well considering, 47% of the vote.

    Oh well, you can’t just blame the Tea Party. Dogs will be dogs. It’s the voters who elect them.”

  22. garnetstar:

    Michael Heath @18 Thanks, I see.

    Interestingly, Nate Silver’s column today is about the statistics of the two-term other-party advantage.

    Although the challenge advantage may be amplified in 2016 by the factors you cite, don’t you think that might be outweighed by the lack of viable GOP candidates? They all seem, so far, to be extremists who will be far less able to appeal to the middle than Romney was.

    Of course, by 2016 someone more viable may emerged, and by that time, may even be acceptable to the base (Christie? Jon Huntsman?)

  23. w00dview:

    Global warming denialism is already dying out. It isn’t a future possibility. It’s here now.

    It might be dying out among the general American public but it is certainly not the case within the Republican Party. There, to entertain the possibility that climate change is occurring and is caused by humans is tantamount to treason within the party and will get you labelled a tree hugging, business hating, anti-American terrorist or more. The GOP’s reaction to climate change has been quite similar to the way the Soviets treated genetics. When ideology and reality collide, ideology must be the winner. If these were some lunatics holding cardboard signs about the awful CO2 scam then we could just dismiss them but they hold some of the most powerful positions within the US government so they will just turn an already bad situation even worse if we don’t throw the fuckers out.

    It’s estimated that it will cost 1/2 to $1 trillion for the USA in the 21st century.

    And these same reality denying doofuses will say that if we even attempt to mitigate damage it will DOOM the economy! Have these jackasses ever heard prevention is better than cure?

    What we will do is adapt. This isn’t vountary, it is mandatory. Global warming will occur whether anyone believes in it or not.

    To accept climate change means to accept some very upsetting changes to the status quo and that can be very uncomfortable. And this is what makes climate change denial so appealing to those in power. Why it is far nicer to believe it is just a hoax by inexplicably powerful environmental interests and we can continue to drill, baby, drill!

  24. dingojack:

    w00dview – with every passing year the PoG’s natural constituency shrinks by natural attrition, defections and dropouts. As the last election showed, the Black/Latino vote is becoming more and more important. Whoever can get them to vote for them has a handy advantage (not enough to win outright, but a ‘balance of power’ kind of hold) The PoG needs to remember that the electorate can have a surprisingly long memory of electoral discrimination and racism.
    For the PoG it’s come down to a stark choice, change or die!
    Dingo
    ——-
    Contrary to popular belief it is possible for parties on both the right and left to shift position and get re-elected. One thinks of Britain’s ‘New Labor’ (really soft Conservatives) or even the Australian Labor Party in the 1980′s or the Aust. Liberals in the 1940′s.

  25. jamessweet:

    I agree with Sullivan that this is unlikely: Essentially Cohn is talking about turning back the clock, to Nixon’s GOP. And just like “You can’t ever go home again”, I think it’s unlikely that the party can just kind of moderate itself across the board.

    As far as Ed’s closing predictions, I’m sure they will do will in the Senate in 2014, but I wouldn’t be so sure about the 2016 presidency. For one thing, who the hell are they going to run?! Also, here’s the thing about the radicalization of the GOP: In large part, this is a result of their historical success at gerrymandering (both parties do it, but the Republicans are significantly better at it). As a result, many-if-not-most Republican candidates have nothing to fear in the general election, but simply have to fend off attacks from their right flank in the primary. As long as the districts are sufficiently gerrymandered, a slow drift to the right will keep them winning elections at the state and local level, but will make it increasingly difficult to gain traction in presidential elections.

    I repeat my question: Who the hell is going to run??? They can’t put Romney up again. Gingrich? Santorum? Perry looks done… I guess maybe Jindal or Rubio or somebody, but they don’t seem particularly eager.

    The Democrats can run Hillary, and although she’s quite hated in many quarters, she’s a strong candidate and should be able to pull it off against anybody I can imagine the GOP running against her….

  26. w00dview:

    The PoG needs to remember that the electorate can have a surprisingly long memory of electoral discrimination and racism.

    Indeed. If your only way of attracting voters is by fear and hatred, that tactic will inevitably turn on you when the group you have denigrated starts to become a significant part of the population that you can no longer ignore. So I eagerly await more “minority outreach” efforts by the GOP and see how they will inevitably mess up because they just can’t seem to hide their contempt. They will either have to become slightly better human beings or extinct. Either one is preferable to what they are now.

  27. dingojack:

    w00dview – Quebec Foxtrot Tango.
    Dingo

  28. Draken:

    Cohn:

    The conservatives say they should go to the right.

    They’d have to start printing swastika flags.

  29. eric:

    @16 and @18 – I’m on the fence about whether global warming will be a GOP-flip in the near term. I can see some GOP reps adopting the ‘we have always been at war with eastasia’ strategy very soon, but not others, so I didn’t include it in my guess as to the next things to change party-wide. I agree with w00d that the ones who have the most to lose are going to switch from “it ain’t happening” to “we need money to fix it” probably sooner. For example, GOP reps in coastal districts that have to deal with their land and primary sources of district income physically disappearing – its hard to imagine that they are going to get much politial mileage out of denial when their beachfront businesses are disappearing under the water. But I simply don’t have a good idea about whether enough of the GOP reps are going to feel the direct environmental pinch needed to flip the party platform in the near term.

  30. D. C. Sessions:

    There’s a very good change that they’re going to win control of the Senate next year and the presidency in 2016, despite those well-documented demographic problems. If they do, however, I expect it will only delay the necessary moderation on key issues.

    Give them all three Houses (Representatives, Senate, and White) and that delay can be mighty long. Coming up in 2016 we’ve got at least one Supreme Court Associate Justice (Ginsburg) and potentially a few others nearly as old who might well be persuaded to retire for the good of the Party. That will give the right wing a lock on the Supreme Court for at least another 20 years.

    Consider what that means from a voting rights perspective. We’re talking the whole of the VRA, just to begin with. Add the entire voter protection branch of the Justice Department (Bush started that but didn’t get all that far.) Of course, we’re talking lots more tax cuts. A totally free rein for money in elections — and more to the point, a complete licence for voter suppression and gerrymandering.

    Don’t forget the use of splitting Electoral College votes in purple States, which multiplies the power of the fearsome Gerrymander. The same trick could be used in those States (an EC-like mechanism for Governor, to pick one.)

    That game can be played for a very long time. The demographic bomb can be put on a very slow fuse as long as the “new” citizens can’t vote.

  31. D. C. Sessions:

    RE: Gerrymandering:

    As a result, many-if-not-most Republican candidates have nothing to fear in the general election, but simply have to fend off attacks from their right flank in the primary.

    That’s not how gerrymandering works. It works by stacking your opponents in districts where they have supermajorities, and spread your supporters around to where they have just enough of a majority to be out of the noise.

    When there’s a real shift (e.g. the Great Recession or the Iraq War) those calculated margins can suddenly be too thin and suddenly the Gerrymander turns on its creator — major flips in lots of districts, rather than just a few here and there.

    BTW: the Republicans did some innovation on that front, by the way. They’ve responded to volatile demographics by increasing the frequency of redistricting to more than once in ten years. Potentially as often as every election year could be on the table.

  32. dogmeat:

    I’m in agreement with James @25. I don’t see the Republicans making any significant changes in their platform for the foreseeable future. The candidates who have promoted those ideas (along with compromise and anything resembling good governance) have been subject to primary challenges by the hard core Tea Party crowd (or those willing to use the TP to get into office). They’re pretty much certain to keep the House, the system has been too gerrymandered for anything but a massive backlash to have any impact on that fortress of ineptitude. They have a good shot at the senate, but we said the same thing in ’10 and the primaries took care of that. If the GOP base picks ideologically pure ultra conservatives in the races that are up for grabs, they’re highly likely to lose those races, much like they did Delaware and Nevada in ’10 and lost Massachusetts after holding it for a couple of years following Kennedy’s death.

    Regarding the presidency, I completely disagree with Ed. As James pointed out, who are they going to run? In ’08 Romney was a far right wing extremist in the party, by ’12 he was one of the most rational and “moderate” of the candidates. I don’t see anything changing by 2016 in how the party works, they’re likely to drive right by any legitimate candidates and go for the wack-a-loon of the month. Add to that, remember that the Democrats have won the popular vote in 5 of the last six elections. In ’00, ’04, and ’12 the Republicans saw significant increases in their previous vote totals (’08 actually dropped due to a number of factors), yet with the exception of ’04, the Republicans couldn’t win the popular vote and actually lost ground as Obama shattered Bush’s vote record in ’08 and still won despite a 2.5 million vote decrease from ’08 to ’12. The GOP message has been rejected by women, young people, and minorities, without shifting back towards the center and dropping some of their more odious positions, I don’t see them gaining much on the Democratic majority in the general election. Their best bet, as I see it, would be to continue to try to rig the election by changing voting access and changing how delegates are awarded. Trying to win legitimately by appealing to the voters with the better policy positions seems to be beyond their ability at this time.

    Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that the Democrats have a solid shot at throwing the election away. They have a truly nasty knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but unlike previous election cycles, I don’t really see the GOP being able to woo that 2-3 million left leaning voters that Bush won in ’04 (for example).

  33. caseloweraz:

    Michael Heath: “We see the challenger advantage amplified in 2016 given President Obama’s risky succession planning. I.e., VP Biden’s age and non-viability as a stand-alone candidate, Hillary Clinton’s age, no other senior official getting rotated through the Executive branch to set them up as the heir apparent.”

    I wouldn’t be so quick to rate either Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton as non-viable. Biden will certainly make some verbal gaffes on the campaign trail. What candidate hasn’t? But I think the public will dismiss them even as the GOP tries to make hay with them. Remember, Biden did well in his debates with both Palin and Ryan.

  34. caseloweraz:

    Raven: “1. We aren’t going to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s not even obvious that we can stop without crashing our civilization.”

    I agree that we won’t stop anytime soon (i.e. not for decades.) It’s also clear that we can’t stop immediately without crashing civilization. However, we can phase out fossil fuels in favor of alternative energy sources (which for me include nuclear fission*). Wind and solar are gaining ground and approaching price parity in some regions. The technical obstacles are vanishing; the political ones will take longer to fade.

    *But not conventional reactor designs. My hope is in the stuff now under development. Also, fusion is little more than a distant hope.

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