For Republicans, self-reflection should begin with honesty.
First: Mitt Romney was not a particularly bad candidate. He was precisely the type of broadly acceptable, business-oriented figure with which the GOP is traditionally identified. But a generic Republican could not win the presidency, even in a relatively favorable year.
Second: Every one of Romney’s opponents in the Republican primaries would have done worse — most of them dramatically worse.
Third: This means that that the entirety of the internal Republican ideological debate of the last two years – the contest to demolish the most government departments, the contest to build the highest wall at the southern border, the contest to say “Reagan” the most times per minute – is irrelevant to the Republican future.
In considering that future, Republicans will need to deal with a number of large issues — from appealing to suburban women to dealing with generational cultural shifts. There will be plenty of opportunities to reflect on these topics. But let me highlight two specific moments from Romney’s campaign that symbolized a party badly off-track.
One was Nov. 18, 2008, when the New York Times published an op-ed column by Mitt Romney with the title (chosen by the Times): “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Romney had a reasonable case to make. He favored managed bankruptcy for auto companies, not liquidation. But however reasonable his explanation, it proved impossible for him to make it convincingly. Combined with his background as a venture capitalist — highlighted in early, negative ads about Bain Capital — Romney’s opposition to the bailout helped put Ohio out of reach. Voters in the heartland may resent government debt, but they do not hate government itself, particularly when it acts to save their communities.
A second defining moment came at the Republican primary debate in Orlando on Sept. 22, 2011. Romney accused Texas Gov. Rick Perry of creating a “magnet” for illegal immigrants by allowing their children to attend college with in-state tuition support. Romney was shifting rightward by targeting the children of immigrants — the kind of offensive political maneuver that can’t be taken back. Perry rightly insisted that this lacked “a heart” — a formulation some conservatives viewed as a gaffe. Perry is now fully vindicated. The lowest moment of the Romney campaign became one of the most destructive.
Smart Republicans knew they would face a demographic crisis sooner or later. It is sooner. A political party that consistently wins 27 percent of the Hispanic vote – as Romney did – will cease to be a national party.
There will be many uncomfortable lessons of defeat for the GOP. Here are two that don’t require much reflection. Republicans will need to develop a more humane, proactive role for government in helping the working class. And they will need to stop actively alienating the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States.