Despite the pugnacity of its leaders, the Republican Party is in bad shape. In 2012 it lost the Presidency, the Senate, and the popular vote for the House of Representatives. More important, it has lost its identity. Other than opposition to everything President Obama proposes, Republicans have no vision for America. Nonetheless, like an aging parent that no longer drives but truculently holds onto the keys to the car so no one else can use it, Republicans are part of the national political process: a perpetual stumbling block. How did they get this way and is there any chance they could find their soul?
Liberals might clap their hands in glee at the sad state of the Grand Old Party, if it were not for the fact that it is almost impossible to move forward on any of the major issues facing the nation – jobs, taxes, global climate change, immigration, gun control, whatever – without support from some Republican members of the 113th Congress. And, with a few notable exceptions, such as bi-partisan support for the Violence Against Women Act, most Republicans seem content to rail against President Obama and join hands as the Party of No.
The erosion of the Republican brand spans fifty years. In 1964 the GOP launched its Southern Strategy of weaning southern white voters away from the Democratic Party by appealing to racism against African-Americans. The two Parties realigned with Democrats as liberals and Republicans as conservatives. Before this era, there had been some liberals and some conservatives in both parties, a situation that made it easier to form coalitions and pass legislation. After 1964, Republicans and Democrats moved away from each other both philosophically and socially.
The Republican brand reached its apex, in 1980, with the election of President Reagan. Conservative economists infused American political discourse with three malignant notions: helping the rich get richer would inevitably help everyone else; markets were inherently self correcting; and, “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
The Republican brand lost its allure during the George W. Bush presidency when it became clear that “Reaganomics” had failed and Republican leaders were incompetent. Nonetheless, the GOP didn’t go through a “rebranding” exercise and offer Americans a new conservative vision. Instead, Republicans made a series of back-room deals to hold onto their power. They joined forces with the US Chamber of Commerce to promote corporate interests and aligned with the conservative Club for Growth to combat fears of global climate change and promote conservative candidates. This accelerated the GOP slide to the far right. Finally, in 2010, the Republican Party embraced the nascent Tea party movement with the result that more than 50 ultra-conservatives became members of Congress.
In 2012, the GOP retained control of the House of Representatives, but eviscerated their brand. Pew Research found
the Republican Party’s overall image stands at one of the lowest points in nearly two decades… 33% of the public had a favorable view of the GOP, compared with 58% who held an unfavorable impression of the party. Majorities of both Democrats and independents viewed the Republican Party unfavorably (83% and 58%, respectively).62 percent of poll respondents felt the GOP to be “out of touch with the American people,” including 36 percent of self-identified Republicans.
Meanwhile the tides of national demographics are moving against Republicans. In 1964 the GOP decided to become the party of white men and in the process lost people of color, urbanites, and women. In 2012, Obama won 93 percent of the black vote, 73 percent of the Asian, 71 percent of the Hispanic, and 56 percent of women.
In addition, Republicans now have to live with the consequences of having partnered with the darkest elements of the American electorate: greedy billionaires, racists, militias, and the “sovereign nation” movement. The Republican majority in the House depends upon the support of self-identified anarchists who pledge never to compromise, want to dismantle the federal government, and preach the President is intent upon suspending the Constitution and forcing socialism on the US.
Having traveled so far down this dark road, the Republican Party has no easy path to reclaim its soul. They could attempt to muddle along – take advantage of the districts they gerrymandered in 2010 – and hope their brand is magically revitalized. This strategy is unlikely to change their fortunes at the national level. But there is a frightening possibility that House Republicans will force a crisis: tank the economy or worse.
Of course, the Republicans might reinvent themselves and cast out the most extreme members of their caucus. That, in effect, is what Karl Rove is advocating by raising money to protect “orthodox” Republicans from challenges by Tea Party candidates. The problem with this course of action is that Republicans risk losing control of the House in the process.
Nonetheless, as Think Progress contributor, Zack Beauchamp, notes, America needs a rational GOP to serve as a countervailing force. Everyone who is serious about governing the US should pray for Republicans to regain their soul.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org