The Washington Post

Republicans today can learn lessons from the Democrats’ past. But will they?

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus gestures while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Monday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Chief correspondent

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus deserves credit for launching a reclamation project for his beleaguered party.

The report by the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project lays bare the depth of the problems of a party that has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections and is on the wrong side of the demographic forces that are changing the country.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

But take it from some of those who have been there. The problems outlined in the frank report will not be solved by tweaks to the Republican message or by limiting the number of candidate debates in 2016 or without a potentially bruising internal fight that will pit GOP constituencies and leaders against one another in a debate over ideas and issues.

Democrats have seen this movie. A quarter-century ago, the Democrats had lost five of six presidential elections, two by landslide margins in the popular vote. Two victories by Richard Nixon, two by Ronald Reagan and then the election of George H.W. Bush finally convinced the Democrats they had to change.

Some of the parallels between Democrats then and Republicans now are striking. One is demographic.

The Democrats in the late 1980s were too dependent on minority votes and had lost support among the white middle class. Republicans today face the mirror opposite. They are too dependent on a shrinking white vote and lack adequate support among minorities.

Republicans are rightly focused on their deficit among Hispanic voters, which is one reason some elected officials are shifting on immigration. But embracing a path to citizenship as part of comprehensive immigration reform may not be enough to attract significantly more Latino support.

The Affordable Care Act is highly popular among Hispanic voters; many Republicans are still trying to repeal it or cripple it. Beyond that, in some states, there have been Republican-led efforts that would make it more difficult for Latinos and African Americans to vote. That is not a winning long-term strategy for a party that says it needs to be more welcoming and inclusive.

The demographic challenge goes beyond minorities. In the 1980s, Reagan attracted young voters to the Republican Party. Now President Obama has turned young voters into Democrats. In the ’80s, Democrats struggled to get the votes of male voters. Today Republicans face a bigger and potentially more consequential deficit with women.

A second parallel is geographic. Republicans in the 1980s talked of having a lock on the electoral college — consistent success in enough states to give them a seemingly impregnable base from which to build to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. That, of course, was in the days when California and New Jersey were swing states in presidential races — now an artifact of history. Republicans haven’t won either state since 1988.

Today, Democrats can’t claim a lock on the electoral college, but they have an electoral base that puts them far closer to a majority that the GOP.

Dividing issues

A third parallel is the sense of a party that is outside the mainstream.

A quarter-century ago, that characterization fit the Democrats. They were seen as soft on crime and weak on defense, as taxers and spenders enamored with programs from the Great Society that the public judged as failures — starting with welfare.

Republicans today face similar challenges, whether on the shifting sentiments toward same-sex marriage, immigration or tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Those parallels come from William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who was one of a number of Democrats who prodded the party in the late 1980s to change course. With Elaine Kamarck, now also at Brookings, he co-wrote a 1989 paper titled “The Politics of Evasion.” Their paper set out to shatter myths about why the Democrats had lost so consistently — that they had “strayed” from liberal orthodoxy or that nothing was fundamentally wrong because they still held control of the House.

The next phase

Galston said the other day that parties go through a series of phases before they remake themselves. The first is denial. That no longer describes the Republicans. They awoke after Mitt Romney’s loss, recognizing they were in trouble.

“I think the Republican Party is now in phase two,” Galston said, “and phase two is always dominated by the proposition of: ‘While we have problems, cosmetic or mechanical changes will solve the problems.’ ” Changes like reframing the message, or finding a better messenger or doing something to catch up on the techniques of data mining, analytics, micro-targeting and voter mobilization. Those are essential but not close to the whole solution.

Kamarck argued that there is another false path for the Republicans — the belief that their problems are the result of a charismatic opponent.

Democrats comforted themselves with that notion after losing a second time to Reagan. Michael Dukakis’s loss to George H.W. Bush in 1988 exploded that excuse. As Kamarck noted, the baggage of a party attaches itself to its presidential nominee. Whatever flaws Romney had as a candidate, his candidacy also suffered from negative perceptions of his party.

While there are parallels between Democrats in the late ’80s and Republicans today, there are some differences that may affect the GOP’s efforts to change. The impetus for changing the Democratic Party came more from outside the institutional party. The Democratic National Committee did not lead the effort. It was led by moderate and conservative Democrats, mostly from the South, who worried about their own political survival.

Their vehicle was the Democratic Leadership Council, which became the prod to challenge party orthodoxy. DLC President Al From, linked up with Bill Clinton, used the DLC to rethink and then road test a series of ideas designed to reposition the Democrats to make the party more acceptable to the middle-class voters they had lost to Reagan and the GOP. That work became the intellectual foundation for the New Democrat campaign in 1992.

There is no equivalent vehicle for Republicans today. National party committees can do many things, but mostly they have to do with raising money and the mechanics of turning out voters. They are not idea factories. Nor have many elected officials stepped forward to lead the effort.

At the recent CPAC meeting, the two Republicans who spoke most directly about changing the party — former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — offered strikingly different prescriptions. The intersection of thinkers and elected officials was a key element in the Democrats’ revival, and it will have to be part of the GOP’s efforts over time.

Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who was part of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, pointed to another reality of changing a party. Clinton, he said, used his nomination battle to take on entrenched interests and challenge the party’s liberal wing. Whether advocating welfare reform, calling for more police on the streets or arguing in union halls for free trade, Clinton conveyed the impression that he had learned the lessons of his party’s defeat. When he became the nominee, he had earned the credibility he and his party needed to wage a successful general election.

A long way to go

Based on the Democrats’ history, what Priebus has begun could have a long way to run before Republicans can look to consistent success in presidential races. “You get a change in the party when three things come together — new ideas, a new organizational base and an attractive new standard-bearer who understands the ideas and this new orientation in his bones,” Galston said. “It’s not something you learn in a briefing book.”

Nothing is permanent in politics. Parties change along with the country. Republicans have some of the building blocks upon which to begin the process of renewal. They aren’t likely to look to Democrats for advice as they do it, but that might not be a bad idea. If the Democrats’ example is any guide, the Priebus-inspired report is far from the last word.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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