How to save the Republican Party, courtesy of two Democrats

William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck are senior fellows in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution. Galston was a deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1993 to 1995. Kamarck created and managed President Bill Clinton’s “reinventing government initiative.” This essay is adapted from “The New Politics of Evasion” in the Fall 2013 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

The GOP is in serious trouble — and it is trouble that we, as long-time Democrats, recognize all too well.

Since their defeat in 2012, Republicans have offered plenty of excuses: candidates who can’t fire up the base, gaps in messaging and technology, the hard-to-match charisma of a historic president. And most Republican leaders seem to hope that cosmetic changes will be enough to reverse course in 2016 — without challenging the convictions of the party’s core supporters.

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A quarter of a century ago, it was our party that was in a bad way. After losing a third presidential election in a row, Democrats offered a litany of explanations for what had gone wrong. Many of the recriminations focused on 1988 candidate Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Others pointed to fundraising and technology, media and momentum. Even after Dukakis’s defeat at the hands of a decidedly uncharismatic George H.W. Bush, Democrats continued to tell themselves that their fortunes would start looking up when Ronald Reagan left the arena.

We disagreed, and in a 1989 manifesto, “The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency,” we set out to debunk the myths that Democrats were using to explain away their dismal defeats. “Too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments, and ineffective in defense of their national security,” we wrote. We pointed to evidence that the party’s problems were more fundamental than the ones being discussed. And we laid out the kinds of changes the party would have to embrace if it wished to regain its competitiveness in presidential elections.

Of course, as Democrats, we welcome today’s reversal of fortunes. We’re gratified that many fewer Americans see the party as out of touch and that many more are open to the Democratic agenda. And no doubt the Democrats’ electoral success has been helped by the fact that it is now the Republican Party that is a victim of adverse demographic trends, unpopular positions on the issues and a demanding base that is far from the country’s center of political gravity.

But we also believe that our democracy is better off with two healthy political parties willing to debate fiercely — and then reach honorable compromises. A Republican Party dominated by a new generation of reform-minded conservatives who care more about solving problems than scoring points would be a huge step toward restoring a federal government that can govern. So we’d like to pass on to Republicans now some of the advice we offered Democrats then.

The first step is to dispense with the evasion. Our manifesto explored three myths that were prevalent among Democrats in 1989— and that can be seen among Republicans today.

The Myth of Fundamentalism

The Myth of Fundamentalism held that Democrats lost presidential elections because they strayed from traditional liberal orthodoxy.We argued that there simply were not enough liberals in the electorate to carry the party to victory. To win, it would need to both hold on to liberals and attract a substantial majority of the moderate vote.

Three years later, Bill Clinton sought to do that. Running for president as a “New Democrat,” he famously promised to “end welfare as we know it,” campaigned against outsize budget deficits and trade protectionism, and proposed to reinvent government, not expand it.

The Republican Party today is as out of step with the mainstream as Democrats were in 1989. For too many conservatives, “Back to Reagan” is a soothing mantra. They think conservatism’s ills can be cured by becoming more conservative. But Republicans are as far from the end of the Reagan administration as Democrats were from FDR during the Nixon era, and the party’s 1980 platform won’t solve today’s problems.

Although there are more conservatives than liberals in the electorate, the GOP still needs moderate support. But the tea party’s Wahhabi-style drive to restore pure, uncompromised conservatism has led Republicans away from an electoral majority. This is especially true with young voters and minorities, although in recent years the entire country has become more tolerant and inclusive. A party dominated by hard-edged social conservatives, opponents of the DREAM Act and climate-change deniers will have a difficult time gaining a hearing.

Republicans would also do well to acknowledge that their commitment to shrinking government entails much deeper spending cuts than most Americans are willing to accept — especially in programs such as Social Security and Medicare. And they must find a way to respond to mainstream concerns about stagnant wages and widening disparities of income and wealth.

The Myth of Mobilization

The second myth we explored was the Myth of Mobilization: the argument that on Election Day, “selective mobilization of groups that strongly support Democratic candidates, especially minorities and the poor, would get the job done for Democratic presidential candidates.” We recalculated the 1988 electoral college results based on African American turnout levels as high as 68 percent of the voting-age population, and even such a record showing wouldn’t have come close to changing the outcome.

The Republicans’ demographic problem is the mirror image of the one that Democrats faced a quarter-century ago. Back then, there weren’t enough minorities to make the Democrats’ electoral strategy work; today, there aren’t enough whites to put the Republicans over the top.

And it will only get worse for them: By the middle of this century, the Census Bureau projects, whites will no longer constitute a majority of the U.S. population. A nearly all-white party, which is what the GOP has become, will have no chance of obtaining an electoral majority. Republicans will have to compete for black, Latino and Asian votes.

The Myth of the
Congressional Bastion

The final misconception we called the Myth of the Congressional Bastion. This was perhaps even more important than the other two myths in sustaining the optimism Democrats felt in 1989. It went something like this: “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the Democratic Party; there’s no realignment going on; the proof is that Democrats still control Congress and a majority of state and local offices as well.” (Despite Dukakis’s seven-point defeat, Democrats gained governorships and controlled 28 statehouses.)

We argued at the time that it was unrealistic to expect that the enormous Republican tide in Southern states at the presidential level would have no effect at the congressional level, and that the power of incumbency was masking what was happening in the electorate.

Five years later, the myth collapsed. In the 1994 midterm elections, Republicans won the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, along with 10 governorships, for a total of 30.

Incumbency can protect a party against shifts in the electorate for only so long. The Republican hold on the House is not overwhelming, and it is far from permanent. Nor is the GOP’s edge among governors. If the generational replacement taking place at the presidential level continues, it will inevitably affect Congress and the states as well.

Reform on the horizon?

Who might play our iconoclast role in this version of the movie? Among the contenders are libertarians, populists and even mainstream conservatives who believe that the idea of compassionate conservatism deserves to survive George W. Bush’s presidency.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and fellow Bush 43 veteran Peter Wehner are trying to build on what Bush got right — and warn the GOP away from what the tea party gets wrong. In a March Commentary magazineessay headlined “How to Save the Republican Party,” they wrote: “It is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.”

Gerson and Wehner propose focusing on the economic concerns of working- and middle-class Americans, welcoming rising immigrant groups, pushing back against hyper-individualistic libertarianism by demonstrating the party’s commitment to the common good, engaging social issues “in a manner that is aspirational rather than alienating,” and harnessing policy views to scientific findings. Describing opposition to same-sex marriage as a “losing battle,” they note tartly (and correctly) that “it is heterosexuals, not homosexuals, who have made a hash out of marriage,” and they suggest that Republicans and conservatives might more usefully focus on strengthening marriage in all its forms.

Gerson and Wehner also offer a theme: “The Republican goal is equal opportunity, not equal results. But equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social achievement, for which government shares some responsibility.”

Despite this intellectual ferment, the transformation of the Republican Party has barely begun. There’s no substitute for a leader who has the guts to break with outdated party orthodoxy, as Clinton did on trade, fiscal policy, welfare and crime, among other issues. And he did more than that: In the famous Sister Souljah episode, when he denounced an African American rapper for comments that justified blacks killing whites, he spoke out against a tendency in the party’s base that crossed the line from protest to extremism.

Mitt Romney and the other contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination had numerous opportunities to do just that, and they ducked them all. The incredible statements about women and rape by two Republican Senate candidates could have served as a Sister Souljah moment for Romney. But rather than using them to mount a full-throated protest against extremism in the party, he offered a mild rebuke that did nothing to undo the damage or to change the trajectory of the campaign. As long as aspirants for GOP leadership flinch from confronting their angry base, the American people will continue to see Republicans as uncompromising, uncaring and retrograde.

And until party leaders are willing to call extremism by its rightful name, repudiating not just mean-spirited words but also narrow-minded policies, it is unlikely that any candidate will be willing to do so. The phrase “liberal fundamentalism” made us few friends a quarter of a century ago, but it was necessary for us to utter it. We’re waiting for our counterparts among today’s Republicans and conservatives to do the same.

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