Following the recent election defeat against Obama and the Democrats, it’s been fascinating to see the Republicans debate what went wrong, and how they can fix it for next time. Everyone seems to be weighing in, with the moderate establishment blaming the hardline conservatives, and vice versa. What most people seem to agree on, however, is that the re-election of Obama was symptomatic of a strong shift in the nature of the US electorate, and that the GOP misjudged how to campaign to it. The electorate is now younger, more liberal and less white. A campaign which would have captured the Presidency in the 1980s will no longer get the votes required in 2016.
There have been shifts like this in other eras and other societies before. Late ’70s Britain is a good example. The Conservative Party tapped into an electoral shift away from the strong socialism and unionism of the post-war Labour movement, and Labour lost the ability to connect with voters, not just in 1979, but for a full generation afterwards. If you want a textbook lesson on how NOT to rebuild after an election defeat, there’s no greater one than British Labour. Doubling down on what you were doing before, and fighting amongst yourselves, is going to see nothing but more defeats.
The debate then comes down to whether it is merely the style of the Republican message, or the substance of it. Naturally, the basic values are off limits. Republicans should always represent less government, greater freedom, peace through strength, strong families, free markets, the right to self defense and choice in healthcare and education. Of that there can be no compromise. But nor can you polish a turd. There are policies and views in the party that are genuine steps towards strengthening those values, and those will simply need presentational polish. Then there are other policies and views that just stink, make no sense when held up in the light of day, and ultimately do not serve the values. Changing them should not be seen as “pandering” to the electorate, or segments of the electorate. It is simply a matter of seeming credible to the average voter. The GOP didn’t lose because of their relationship with minority voters, they lost because of a credibility gap. And they lost their credibility, because there are lies that Republicans like to tell themselves – lies that simply make them look like fools. There are a few of them, but the main ones are:
- Being pro-life is a credible policy position (as opposed to merely a moral one);
- Our immigration policy is all about “border security”, not racial prejudice;
- There’s no economic problem that can’t be solved with a tax cut;
- Obama/Clinton/[insert Democrat here] is a socialist.
I’ll deal with all these in detail in future posts. But let me say for now that the approach is just wrong on all these issues, and while the Democrats are going to demagogue you whatever you do, if you are saying/doing stupid stuff, it doesn’t help. The lies have to be unmasked.
If you look at how parties make comebacks from “sea change” elections, it is done by a partial adoption of some of the opposing party’s ground. Sometimes this is a pander too far, and you end up with a wet government that looks too much like its predecessor (see Eisenhower, John Key, David Cameron…). That is not what I want to see from the GOP. The best example of what I mean is Tony Blair’s Labour government, which actually shifted Britain to the right on economic policy, while staying true to their values in domestic social services. I believe that if the Republicans were prepared to look at fresh ideas and stop telling themselves lies on the issues above, they can modernise sufficiently for the electorate, while maintaining the substantive small government platform that the Tea Party currently seek from them. This seems to me to be the way forward – not blatant pandering on one hand, or feral Tea Partying on the other. More an acknowledgement of new realities on certain issues in a way that preserves what makes the Republican Party great, and keeps it as a healthy “big tent” ticket. That’s how the Right will win in 2014 and 2016.