The GOP problem isn’t getting elected, it’s governing

Jim Gilmore

Jim Gilmore in 1999 (Bristol Herald Courier photo)

Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor and Republican National Committee chairman, told National Review’s Robert Costa today that the GOP was in danger of becoming “locked into a permanent minority at the national level unless we seriously rethink our approach.”

In fact, that’s probably not the case. The Republican Party does have a serious problem these days, but it isn’t primarily about “shrillness and extreme language … driving away the voters who could help” them win. Indeed, it isn’t primarily an electoral problem at all.

Yes, on the margins Republicans probably are hurt by demographic changes and their reactions to it, but the bottom line is that the party hasn’t been losing elections because of it. If it was, that would be reflected (for example) in the difference between fundamentals-based projections of presidential elections and the actual elections. Yet Barack Obama was projected to win both in 2008 and in 2012, and over the past several election cycles there is no apparent effect that would indicate long-term problems for Republicans.

But the GOP does have a problem: governing. That was apparent during the George W. Bush administration; the years of Republican rule of Congress during the Clinton and Bush presidencies; and in the House of Representatives over the last two years. It’s not shrillness and extreme language that’s the problem; it’s shrill and extreme actions, from impeachment to the Iraq War to Boehner-era brinkmanship.

It’s an attitude that compromise is inherently unprincipled. It’s constant self-destructive paranoia about fringe nomination challenges (and self-destructive encouragement of fringe primary challenges) rather than healthy paranoia about general-election defeat. And, more than anything, it’s a failure to take governing and public policy seriously.

All this means that, when they do have a chance to govern, Republicans are less likely to actually enact policies that Republican-aligned groups care about. Moreover, they are less likely to construct viable public policy of any kind, leading to the kinds of policy disasters that usually get parties kicked out of office.

Or, to put it another way: The problem for Republicans isn’t so much that they’re alienated Latinos but that they’re the party of Iraq, Katrina and the Great Recession. And the 1995-1996 shutdown, impeachment, Tom DeLay and others convicted of corruption, and the tea party crises in 2011 and 2012. The mechanisms that produced those fiascoes are apparently just as strong within the GOP as ever.

This is the problem that Republicans should be figuring out how to resolve. Sure, insulting and alienating large groups of Americans is a bad idea for a political party, but that’s also fairly easy to fix. The other stuff is much more difficult to solve. And if the GOP doesn’t, the next Republican presidency will be as much of a disaster as the last one was.

Also on PostPartisan

PostScript: Eugene Robinson and the GOP's explanations