There are a few competing theories about how to expand the appeal of the Republican Party. Aside from radio talk show hosts and right-wing groups that fundraise off calamities like the government shutdown, there is a general consensus on the right that the party has to expand to create an electoral majority if it is going to win back the White House. The question is how, and who will be part of that new, larger coalition.
Reform conservatives see a center-right coalition of young people, working- and middle-class voters who don’t hate government but want it to function properly and allow them to attain the American dream. They’ve realized that within traditional conservatism there was a tradition of limited but vigorous government. They know the liberal welfare state had neglected the poor and dampened opportunities for everyone. They are prepared to take that message wherever they go, seeing it as a more attractive proposition than minimalist government or liberalism.
Others in the party, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), see an increasingly ethnically diverse electorate. They understand the party cannot offend these people from the get-go with an anti-immigration agenda that consists of uprooting and deporting millions of people. Immigration reform is a gateway issue for the fastest-growing segment of electorate, so the strategy makes electoral sense. Again, it is consistent with core conservative values. Despite opponents’ rhetoric, immigration reform, properly done, is pro-growth, pro-opportunity and pro-law and order.
There are, of course, Republicans (e.g. Jeb Bush, Rubio) who subscribe to both approaches, each of which can deliver some new voters.
Sen. Rand Paul, on the other hand, has another vision dictated by his libertarian sentiments. He’s going to lose many conservatives over his foreign policy and social positions, so he must gain replacement voters plus, like other Republicans, get even more new voters. He needs a different sort of Republican coalition.
As Matt Bai put it, “Paul’s chief vulnerability as a candidate, despite his impressive showings in early and meaningless polls, is that, like his father before him, he’s associated with a more fringe kind of conservatism. He’s the guy who publicly doubted the constitutionality of the Civil Right Act. He’s the guy who thinks the federal government should get out of the governing business. Paul needs to demystify himself a little, to show Republicans that he won’t lead the party off the electoral cliff on which it’s already teetering. He needs to reassure the less ideologically pure in his own party, just as Ronald Reagan masterfully did in 1980, when a lot of conservatives worried that he was too extreme for the rest of the country.”
Paul therefore has picked up a set of discrete issues (National Security Agency surveillance, drones, drug reform) and tried to pitch those issues to young, African American and Hispanic audiences. He doesn’t bother selling core conservatism, in large part because that’s not a message that is going to win over new voters. (A libertarian agenda has flopped spectacularly in attracting minority voters and women at the state and federal level.) He gets some credit from the mainstream media and satisfies those in the party who think the only problem with the GOP is that it doesn’t show up in certain communities to ask for votes.
To my mind, Paul’s strategy is mathematically and philosophically flawed. Pro-choice, pro-welfare state voters aren’t going to buy his philosophy as a whole. There will be plenty on the left catering to them on these issues and willing to pitch an anti-defense, pro-drug legalization platform. In other words, it’s far from clear that a friendly reception results in new Republican registrants, let alone GOP primary voters. They don’t need an anti-abortion, anti-government zealot to satisfy their opposition to robustly fighting the war on terror or pot legalization.
The numbers simply don’t add up when one considers the number of strong-on-defense and social conservatives who will find candidates much more to their liking than Paul. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee will scoop up these voters in batches, leaving Rand Paul with the same core young white males who voted for his father plus the hope that kids from U.C. Berkeley and Howard University are going to rush to support him. It’s a questionable proposition.
Whether Republicans can really broaden their appeal is open to debate, but they won’t do so by hiding their true beliefs. They should, however, show up as Rand Paul has done — but then sell them on an agenda that is going to do more for them than failed liberalism. That’s the approach that worked successfully for many Republican governors in blue and purple states, so there is some reason for optimism. We’ll be watching to see how they fair.