The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans need to learn why the public keeps rejecting them

GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks at a rally with former president Donald Trump on Sept. 25, 2021 in Perry, Ga. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
5 min

When Sally Field won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1984 film “Places in the Heart,” she told the world, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” If anyone is more desperate for approval than actors, it’s politicians. And today, Republicans ought to be looking out at the electorate and saying, “We can’t deny the fact that you don’t like us. Right now, you don’t like us!”

Some of them will deny this, of course. But after a succession of losses — their 2018 midterm blowout, Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid, a 2022 midterm disappointment, and now Herschel Walker’s defeat in the Georgia runoff — Republicans might look to the past for lessons on what to do after voters have rejected you over and over.

If they do, they’ll see that parties have usually reacted to defeat, especially multiple defeats, by coming up with something to counter whatever they decided it was that the electorate disliked about them. And when they fail to do that, they usually lose yet again.

The clearest recent example was the period leading up to the 1992 election, when a group of Democrats decided that the party had become too liberal and too devoted to tax-and-spend policies in Washington. Some believed that without change they might never win the White House again — Republicans had won five of the prior six presidential elections.

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The answer was sometimes called the “Third Way,” an attempt to split the difference between liberalism and conservatism, including cuts to social programs and punitive criminal justice policies. Bill Clinton, a leader of that movement, won the party’s nomination, became president and later declared, “The era of big government is over,” angering many liberals.

But Clinton was hardly an exception; most recent presidential candidates who turned their party’s fortunes around promised a new and different version of their party. During his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush criticized congressional Republicans for cruelty to the poor and called himself a “compassionate conservative.” Knowing that the public had recoiled at the impeachment of Clinton, he said at the party’s convention that year, “I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years.”

Barack Obama too presented himself as different from his party. He was an early opponent of the Iraq War (when most Democratic leaders supported it) and offered a uniquely personalized version of change.

And in 2016, Trump was contemptuous of the politicians in his party, both for their milquetoast personalities and their support for the Iraq War and NAFTA.

Even Joe Biden’s 2020 primary victory was a response to things his party worried the electorate didn’t like about it. Though on policy Biden was the party’s most liberal nominee since George McGovern, Democrats quite consciously chose him from an unusually diverse field because they believed an older, straight White man would be most palatable to the middle of the electorate.

In every case, the successful candidate presented himself as a reaction to the things the public disliked about his party. So what would a smart Republican turn away from right now?

Many of the core policy goals of the party are deeply unpopular, including its desire to outlaw abortion and give tax cuts to the wealthy, but those are unlikely to change. More than anything else, what the electorate has recoiled from is Trumpism in all its manifestations. The voters have pretty clearly had about enough with the election denialism, the QAnon conspiracy theories, the disregard for the law, the consorting with repugnant extremist bigots, and the relentless need to start petty squabbles with anyone and everyone.

But that’s only true of the general electorate. As Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said after the Georgia runoff, “If you get endorsed by him in the primary, you’re likely to win. If you get endorsed by him in the general, you’re likely to lose.” That was the story of this year’s midterms.

And that quandary is likely to be the story of the Republican primaries in 2024. Presenting yourself as the heir to Trump who isn’t Trump — as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is doing — is likely to be a very appealing strategy for Republican primary voters. But to win in November 2024 and take back the presidency, the Republican nominee will have to advertise how the party has turned away from Trump and resist a strong impulse to stick to the same course that won the 2016 campaign.

Many Republicans want to spend the next two years stirring up culture war controversies and investigating Biden’s family, then nominate Trump again. Right now, a portion of their base remains consumed with the idea that they would have won the 2020 election if only nude photos of Hunter Biden had been more widely distributed on Twitter.

We’re all tempted to react to setbacks by casting blame anywhere but on ourselves and insisting we don’t need to change. But if you can’t make that leap, the electorate will keep delivering the same lesson.