The GOP’s epic gamble

February 13, 2013

The media consensus seems to be that Marco Rubio’s Big Gulp distracted from the message of his rebuttal, a circumstance that’s being broadly portrayed as a negative turn of events for him. But Brian Beutler speculates that perhaps this was a better outcome for the Florida Senator, because it distracted the public from the vacuousness of his message.

Beutler runs through the speech’s substance, such as it was. There was a wink at climate change denial; a fusillade of the same old anti-government bromindes; a nod towards the Fannie and Freddie theory of the financial crisis; and a rehash of the idea that lowering the top marginal tax rate will uncork a rush of growth. He concludes the public would have seen through the ruse if not for the Big Gulp:

These are views that have marginalized the GOP over the past four years. But rethinking the agenda that attends to them has turned out to be too tall an order for the GOP. Easier to foist Rubio into the spotlight to propound it more gently than Mitt Romney did, and then hope his youth, ethnicity, and support for immigration reform will be the talismans that reverse the party’s hemorrhaging of minority and immigrant voters.

That lazy, cynical strategy was naked on the stage Tuesday night. Republicans should be thrilled Rubio got a touch of dry mouth at the wrong moment.

Having reached a similar conclusion about the GOP’s refusal to rethink its actual policy agenda, I’m still struggling with a question: Is it really possible that the smartest strategists in the Republican Party have decided that they don’t need to change a substantive thing aside perhaps from the party’s stance on immigration?

The reporting I’ve seen on this just doesn’t quite answer the question as conclusively as I’d like. And really, this seems like a truly epic gamble when you think about it. After all, the priorities laid out in both the Inaugural Address and in yesterday’s SOTU speech are very explicitly about intensifying the bond between the core constituencies that reelected Obama — minorities; young voters; college educated whites, especially women; and to some degree non-college white women — and the Democratic Party. The second term agenda Obama laid out in both those speeches is also explicitly designed to deepen GOP estrangement from these constituencies — which also happen to be growing as a share of the national vote. Is the GOP response to this really to do … nothing?

There are two pieces of evidence that suggest the answer is Yes. The first is that Republican strategists keep saying in interviews that Obama’s new coalition represents a big gamble for Democrats. That is, they say that the next Dem presidential candidate won’t be able to muster the same historic turnout among these constituencies that Obama managed; the party’s declining reliance on white males — particularly non college ones — could come back to haunt it. That suggests Republicans are relying on the assumption that current demographic trends won’t be quite as bad for them as they look now.

The second piece of evidence lies in something Marco Rubio told the Weekly Standard the other day. Rubio explicitly said that Republicans were proceeding from the assumption that Obama’s policies would fail later. Rubio added: “We have to at least have the credibility to say: ‘We told you this wouldn’t work; here’s a better alternative.’”

In this context, the decision to change nothing suddenly makes sense. If these policies are bound to fail, simply continuing to argue against them, as Republicans are now doing, could conceivably be enough. Republicans would later be able to say: We told you so. We told you Obama’s Big Government policies would fail. Time to try the limited government approach we’ve been arguing for all along. Buying in to Obama’s policies by compromising would muddy these waters.

Is it possible that this is really the calculation? If so, it’s awfully similar to the strategy that failed in the first term. And it seems like a huge risk, particularly given rapidly changing demographic realities. I’m open to hearing — whether from more reporting, or from smart conservative writers — that Republicans have a much more cleverly thought out master plan. But right now, it isn’t clear from everything we know that there is anything else going on here.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | February 13, 2013