Given all the talk about voter demographics since Tuesday, I thought return to a different point that I made back at the start of the general election campaign: Part of the story of this election must have been that Republicans are really searching without much luck to find any – any – policy where they have an advantage over Democrats.
This is just an amazing change from the 1980s and 1990s. Republicans had opened up an advantage on national security after Vietnam, and they held it until Iraq; that appears to be completely gone now. (A subset of that revolved around Cold War issues. That, of course, has been gone for twenty years.) Republicans used to have a real advantage on a constellation of issues surrounding crime – tough sentencing, the death penalty, the war on drugs — but that entire set of issues basically disappeared some ten to fifteen years ago. Gun control increasingly favors the Republican position, yet for better or worse, that’s also the Democratic position in most cases, so it’s not much of a wedge. Abortion remains as split as ever, favoring no one (unless a politician is foolish enough to mishandle it, as Republicans did so memorably in this cycle). Of course, public opinion on gay and lesbian rights has shifted remarkably against the GOP position. The parties appear more or less even on taxes. Traditional Democratic issues – health care, education – still play well for the Democrats, but where are the current Republican issues?
Until recently, it was a standard Republican tactic to use symbolic ballot measures as “wedge issues” to make life difficult for Democratic politicians, and to encourage their own turnout without equally encouraging the other side. Think of three-strikes crime laws, English language propositions, and of course a series of initiatives on marriage and other gay rights issues. They did almost none of that during this cycle; even on marriage, three of the four measures were placed there by proponents of marriage equality, not opponents. Frankly, I’m struggling to think of any issue at all that they would use. The only one I really noticed in this cycle were opportunities to cast symbolic votes against the Affordable Care Act, but that’s hardly a 60/40 issue for Republicans, and it’s likely to recede even more in the future. Of course, the Republican National Convention, which spent the majority of its time focusing on meaningless, policy-free attacks on out-of-context comments by the president, was the perfect symbol of all of this.
To be sure: none of this means that Republicans can’t win elections. But it does make it harder for them, and in my view it probably makes it harder for them to govern when they do win. It’s not a great place for a major party to be sitting.