Watching last Thursday's Republican presidential debate, I kept thinking of a conversation I had with Mike Murphy, a longtime GOP political consultant, back in 2013. Murphy had explained the schism within his party as a battle between mathematicians and priests -- and it's still the best explanation I've heard to understand the ongoing drama within the GOP.
Since we talked, Murphy has signed on with Jeb Bush -- a candidate very much on the mathematician side of this debate. Our 2013 conversation, edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: You recently tweeted out that the fight within the Republican Party right now is between "mathematicians and priests." Explain.
MURPHY: There seem to be two schools of thought in GOP. One group, the Mathematicians, look at the GOP's losing streak and the changing demography of the country and say the party needs to make real changes to attract voters beyond the old Republican base of white guys. Not just mechanics, but also policy. They want to modernize conservatism and change some of the old dogma on big issues like same sex marriage. I'm one of them. The other group, the Priests, say the problem is we don't have enough ideological purity. We must have faith, be pure and nominate "real conservatives" (whatever that means; the Priests are a bit slippery about their definitions) who will fight without compromise against liberalism. The Priests are mostly focused on the sins we are against; they say our problem is a lack of intensity; if we are passionate and loud enough, we will alert and win over the rest of the country. The Mathematicians hear all this and think the Priests are totally in a 55-year-old white guy echo chamber of their own creation and disconnected from the reality of today's electorate. They are worry more about what the party should be for, and how we grow our numbers. They think the Priests fail to understand it is not 1980 anymore and votes are not there for the Old Pitch. The Priests hear the Mathematicians and think they are all sell-outs.
FIX: How does the fight between the mathematicians and the priests resolve itself? And when?
MURPHY: It'll go on forever. Since the Priests' dogma is about faith, they explain any loss or debacle the same way; we were not pure enough. Take for example the ridiculous House shutdown strategy; many of those voices say the failure was the Senate didn't go as berserk as the House. The bottom line is that if the Priests dictate the tactics of the party, we will keep losing presidential elections. The fight will be at the center of the 2016 nomination fight. The Priests will battle for a "real conservative" like the post-[Hubert H. Humphrey] Democrats battled in '72 for a real Democrat. They got McGovern. We could get Ted Cruz. The Mathematicians will want a modernizer who can appeal beyond the base, like Clinton and DLC did in '92. Who that GOPer is not yet known. Casting is now open...
Does the party need a Republican Bill Clinton to find "third way" solution? And, if so, who's in the running to be that person?
MURPHY: 2016 is our big opportunity and our big challenge. Because there are a lot of GOP states picking senators in 2014, I think the party should do OK. We might blow Georgia like we did Nevada and Delaware in 2010, but I think we will gain a seat or more. And the House districts are so safe on both sides now, it's hard to see a 2014 switch in party control. The 2014 electorate is a lot smaller too, which means it is more GOP friendly. But when you look at the likely demographics of the 2016 presidential elections, it is scary for the GOP. One has to wonder what the GOP brand will look like to general election voters in 2016 after the 2015 primary season in the GOP. The hat trick would be to nominate a Republican candidate who can expand the GOP vote with a new message and fresh policy ideas that resonate with the middle class. But the terrain of the current GOP primary landscape will be punishing for such a candidate. Still we either do that, or we will lose again. So far, we have not learned the lesson.
What's a bigger issue for the future of the Republican Party: Its struggles to win young voters or to win Hispanic voters? Why?
MURPHY: It is the same issue. Young voters are more non-white than any other voter group. We need to be acceptable to young voters and open our doors to Latinos, Asians and other groups. If the GOP supported same-sex marriage and a fair path to citizenship in immigration reform, we'd have the Democrats on the run everywhere. They are tilting more left and more out of the mainstream on economic issues. That is a huge opportunity for us; but not if we let these other issues block the door to young voters interested in the GOP. We are obsessed with mechanics and the Internet but the real issue is policy. New ideas. But since our internal incentives are often stacked against any evolution on some of these issues, we are stuck in a terrible quandary; shooing away tomorrow's voters to pander to yesterday's. Look at it this way. If you want to learn about the gestalt of a political party, look at the media space the activist core of that party organically gravitates toward on its own. For the Democrats, it is that new fad called the Internet. For the GOP, it's AM radio. AM radio is likely to be gone in 10 years. The bottom line is we either modernize conservatism, or lose more.
Finish this sentence: "The Republican message in 2016 should be ________________."
MURPHY: More than anything else, we must become the party of freedom and upward social mobility. We should stand for the ladder up: better schools for everyone, a government that serves rather than commands, and a free enterprise system that gives the little guy the same fair shot to make it to the top as those born with the most. We should stand for fiscal responsibility, growth economics and a better life for every citizen.