It is clear that the Republican party is still smarting from its losses in the last election and trying to find ways to become more appealing to the general public, especially women, minorities, immigrants, and the young, without alienating its traditional base and in particular the extremist bloc that has painted the party into a corner by forcing them to take unpopular stances on social issues. How can it do both?
One idea being floated tries to take the easy way out and argue that it is not what the party stands for that is the problem but that it has been clumsy with its messaging, with a few rogue elements (who are understood to be failed senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock with their statements on rape) being responsible. At a party conference over the weekend, the leader of the Republican National committee Reince Priebus advocated this view, saying:
“It’s not the platform of the party that’s the issue,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said Friday after being easily reelected to a second, two-year term. “In many cases, it’s how we communicate about it. It is a couple dumb things that people have said.”
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who seems to be making a serious bid to run for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, tried to sound as if he is calling for a major overhaul in the party, thus co-opting the desired ‘change’ label but if you look closely at what he said, he actually echoes Priebus’s ‘few, dumb, apples’ message. Jindal may tout himself as a reformer who wants the party to not be seen as the ‘stupid party’ but what he seems to mean by that is that they not say stupid things, not that they stop believing them.
John Avlon points out that Jindal’s supposedly important recent speech did not break any new ground, and that his own actions as governor are consistent with the policies that the country is moving away from.
“I am not one of those who believe we should moderate, equivocate or otherwise abandon our principles,” Jindal said. “This badly disappoints many of the liberals in the national media, of course. For them, real change means: supporting abortion on demand without apology, abandoning traditional marriage between one man and one woman, embracing government growth as the key to American success, agreeing to higher taxes every year to pay for government expansion, and endorsing the enlightened policies of European socialism.”
The tragicomic caricature does not describe what Democrats believe or what a centrist Republican might want. But the markers Jindal puts down means he is backing social conservative positions such as opposition to same-sex marriage and the call for a constitutional ban on abortion that is codified in the party platform.
Many voters — especially members of the millennial generation — consider these positions at odds with libertarians’ professed belief in maximizing individual freedom, but the contradiction and resulting voter alienation is entirely sidestepped. Confronting it is politically inconvenient, if not impossible.
Not being the stupid party also means supporting science and the separation of church and state, at least to the extent that creationism is not taught in public schools. But Jindal has backed the teaching of creationism in Louisiana public schools in a pander to conservative populists. Physician, heal thyself.
Jindal rightly says, “We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We’ve had enough of that.” He’s presumably referring to the self-destructed tea-evangelist Senate campaigns of Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin — which alienated women and centrist voters with the candidates’ tortured talk about rape, biology and abortion.
But the problem with those bizarre and offensive comments was rooted in the policies the Senate candidates were being asked to defend — namely, their faith-based opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape. Unless, that policy is addressed, the problem will remain. Silence on the subject doesn’t solving anything.
Thomas Edsall argues that the Republican party is running out of voters because its stance on important social issues, while enthusiastically backed by its dwindling core base, is at odds with the way public opinion on those issues is changing.
If the conservative movement continues on its downward trajectory, the American business community, which has the most to lose from Republican failure, will be the key force arguing for moderation.
The problem that faces business leaders pressing for reform is not just the normal reluctance of a political party to change. Instead, it is the fact that much of the Republican electorate, as presently constructed, is profoundly committed — morally and ideologically — to “traditional values.” You’re asking groups of people to change who were brought together by their resistance to change. Their opposition to change is why they are Republicans.
The right coalition includes a subset of conservatives determined to preserve white hegemony. Add to that social conservatives who oppose both the women’s rights and gay rights movements, and the religiously observant who are dead set against burgeoning secularism and what they see as the erosion of faith in public life.
Survey data reveals the profound resistance on the right to cultural disruption. Poll after poll shows that Republicans believe politicians should stand firmly against compromising core principles, by much higher margins than either Democrats or independents.
An indirect but important reflection of partisan attitudes to change is visible in the higher percentage of Republicans, 58 percent, who believe in creationism – defined in this survey as the belief that God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years – than Democrats, 41 percent, and independents, 39 percent.
In effect, for many cultural and social conservatives, being a Republican is not just an allegiance to one of two major political parties but a deeply held belief system, an ideology with a strong religious core.
In politics, it is often a mistake to take the present state of party allegiances to be permanent. While the fundamental oligarchic control of the system is durable, people’s allegiances between the two factions that serve the oligarchy can shift quite quickly. After Richard Nixon’s landslide win in 1972, it was thought that his successful ‘Southern strategy’ would last for a long time, and Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s successful re-election campaigns triggered talk of a permanent Republican majority based on a Christian conservative core. And yet neither lasted. So one should not facilely think that the Democratic party’s success in 2008 and 2012 signal a permanent shift in political allegiances.
But at the same time, demographic shifts are more deep-rooted than shifts in views on policies that can shift to and fro. The problem for Republicans is how to appeal to the changing demographic along with the surprisingly rapid acceptance of homosexuality and decline of religion (both trends that are highly unlikely to be reversed) without changing the core policies that have traditionally appealed to their increasingly narrow-minded base.
My feeling is that they have to bite the bullet and abandon, or seriously moderate, their stands on the social issues that are hurting them with women, immigrants, and the young, and focus on those fiscal issues that they love, like low taxes and cuts in welfare and other social nets. The social conservatives will squeal and talk of betrayal but where can they go? The party may then be able to peel off enough fiscally conservative Democratic votes that way to regain a majority.
But I don’t see them doing that anytime soon.