Can 2016 be 1992 for the GOP?

Reince Priebus in January 2011, after winning election as Republican National Committee chairman (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Reince Priebus in January 2011. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

The GOP is supposed to be the party in trouble if you listen to the mainstream media. It has a demographic problem, a message problem, an agenda problem and a tone problem. There is something to all that, but maybe it is the Democratic Party that is the one really in peril.

Consider that faith in government is dropping like a stone. President Obama’s second term looks bleak and interminable (three years can seem like forever when you’re in the political doldrums). The Democrats may lose the Senate. The 2016 “inevitable” nominee doesn’t generate much news and has little, if any, distinctive message or agenda; she is running on her own sense of entitlement. Democrats have taken a beating in gubernatorial and state legislative elections. And worst of  all, the Democratic Party has a fundamental problem at the core of its philosophical underpinnings: It cannot sustain the government it wants with the economic policies (high taxes, big deficits, uber-regulations) it favors. In short, liberal statism doesn’t work in practice while liberal foreign policy is a frightening combination of appeasement, unilateral disarmament and indifference to totalitarianism.

President George H.W. Bush, it was said, had the third Reagan term. Then he ran out of gas, lost a driving purpose for his presidency and was replaced by someone who offered a Third Way, something different from garden-variety liberalism. By contrast, Obama didn’t make it through a year of his second term before hitting the rocks. Part of the problem is plainly personal to him. He is both incompetent and arrogant, a deadly combination that prevents one from correcting the course. But he is also the perfect embodiment of the liberal worldview: Government is “kind,” so opponents must be cruel; America is a menace, so the world is better without us meddling here and there; the private sector is corrupt or broken, so centralized power must be wielded by technocrats in the federal government. When it turns out the most sophisticated representative of liberal statism can’t run what he’s created and is confronted with a series of foreign policy fiascos, people begin to wonder if maybe the whole enterprise is flawed.

In 1992, the Democrats beat the exhausted GOP incumbent not with a standard-fare liberal, but with a forward-looking, can-do governor who eventually would declare the era of big government to be over (he hadn’t yet met Barack Obama). So, too, the GOP in 2016 would be wise not to revert to what Obama defeated twice — a stodgy, remote version of conservatism that is reactionary on social issues and regurgitates economic platitudes without addressing the day-to-day needs of voters. You can’t beat something or someone with nothing.

The test then in the next few years for the GOP is not whether it can find a single presidential-caliber presidential contender. In fact, it has a few of them. It is whether it can, in the same way Clinton did to Bush 41, paint an alternative, more contemporary vision that can offer voters something better than shopworn ideology of the incumbent president. If the alternative is screechy confrontational partisanship without substance, then Hillary Clinton will be good enough, I suspect, for most voters. It is only a GOP that is not your father’s GOP that can win and capitalize on the left’s intellectual and political exhaustion. For that, just as for the Democrats in 1992, the answer will come from the states. That is where conservatism ideology tempered by voters’ needs and divided government are producing the most effective brand of conservatism in a generation.

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