Some in the Republican Party Are Ready to Move On

There are Republicans who are committed to winning elections again. There may not be enough.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush answers questions at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush answers questions at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27 (Gage Skidmore)

Some of the Republicans vying to succeed Barack Obama in 2016 understand they need to do more than outsmart Democrats. But many have yet to come to terms with their last defeat and may forestall the self-reflection and reinvention Republicans need before they can start winning elections again.

Ted Cruz — a firebrand from Texas who, in two years as a senator, appears to have achieved nothing but infuriate serious lawmakers in both parties — is a good example. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry reviewed his election strategy for The Week and found that its fatal conceit reflects a broader Republican misconception: that their only problem winning national elections is tactics and strategy.

After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election against Obama, too many Republicans convinced themselves that the defeat was entirely due to Romney, a bad candidate with a bad operation. The former Massachusetts governor was notorious for changing his positions on issues ranging from abortion to health care while the Democrats conducted a superior voter-outreach effort.

But Gobry points out that Romney nevertheless ran ahead of the generic Republican in many states, suggesting that his loss had more to do with how the party rather than the candidate was perceived.

The fact that Republicans were quick to blame Romney goes to what Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, has called the three cycles of a party’s recovery at his blog, The Restless Realist.

The first election defeat is written up to bad luck. This is what Republicans did in 2008. The second defeat “is usually written up to the candidates,” according to Berman, “either the unusual strength of the incumbent or the flawed nature of their opponent.” This is what Republicans did in 2012. Only after losing three elections in a row do parties realize they have a more fundamental problem.

That problem, writes Gobry, is that voters aren’t buying what the Republican Party is selling.

They’re not buying what it’s selling because what it’s selling is out of date; I mean this not in a progressive “right side of history” way but matter-of-factly. Inflation, crime, welfare reform, high tax rates — these are the concerns of the middle class of 1980. And these are no longer its concerns because Republicans fixed many of them.

Middle America worries more about employment, education, health care and stagnating incomes now. It’s not that Democrats necessarily have a better agenda on these issues than Republicans. They’re winning because they have an agenda at all, argues Gobry.

Take a closer look, though, and the agenda Republicans need is developing.

The Atlantic Sentinel reported in April that Democrats and Republicans were starting to talk about the same problem. Whether it is the lack of job security, unaffordable higher education, a health-care system that is similarly more expensive than it needs to be or the absence of real wage growth, the defining domestic policy challenge of this generation is how to make life a little easier for those tens of millions of Americans who identify as middle class.

Democrats have been talking about this for a while. In his annual State of the Union address last year, President Obama said that “too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead.” His likely successor as party leader, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, said in April, when she announced her own candidacy for the presidency, “Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times but the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”

Republicans tend to be more concerned about giving Americans the opportunity to get ahead rather than making sure they do. But some recognize that’s not enough anymore.

Jeb Bush, the frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination, said earlier this year, “It’s very hard for people to go from the bottom rungs of the economy to the top or even the middle. This should alarm you. It has alarmed me.”

Marco Rubio, another contender for the nomination, similarly lamented that too many Americans are starting to question whether the “American Dream” is still within their reach.

Both argue that the solution starts with better schools. Bush created America’s first statewide voucher program in Florida when he was governor there and has actively championed conservative education reforms, including charter schools, since. Rubio calls for a better system of higher learning, one that “provides working Americans the chance to acquire the skills they need” without burying them under a mountain of debt.

Seven out of ten college graduates have student debts with an average of $28,400 per borrower. For those who graduated this year, the average debt is $35,000 — more than three times the average just twenty years ago.

American education is in need of an overhaul and it’s not going to come from Democrats who reject charter schools, who resist any reform that is opposed by the teachers unions and who would do little to arrest the rising cost of higher education, instead calling for ever more generous student loan programs while ruling out austerity in entitlements for the elderly and poor at the same time.

Nor is the solution going to come from Republicans who spend more time sloganeering and railing against the left than they do defending conservative policies. The likes of Ted Cruz do the party no favors by pretending the way to win is to tack further to the right. It is the angry rhetoric of his wing of the party, which is still fighting the battles of the 1980s, that is putting off moderate, middle-class voters in swing states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

In those states that determined the outcome of the last president election, a majority of voters — according to exit polls — agreed with Republicans that the federal government had overreached. Voters who identify as either conservative or moderate far outnumber leftists in the seven states that have neither a reliably Democratic nor a reliably Republican majority. In Iowa and Ohio, more voters identify as conservatives than in the rest of the country yet both states reelected Obama in 2012.

It are middle-class voters, not the working poor or the super rich, who are denying Republicans victories by voting against their interest in lower taxes and less government because they hear Republican reactionaries say ridiculous things about climate change, sex and women’s rights.

Again, the likes of Bush and Rubio show they are committed to making their party electable again by striking a conciliatory tone.

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality last month, the former said, “We should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments.” The latter emphasized his disagreement with the decision but added, “We live in a republic and must abide by the law.”

Others, like Cruz, attacked the court and proposed constitutional changes to reverse gay marriage.

Bush’s and Rubio’s views on America’s changing demographics are also more relaxed — although Rubio, a Cuban American, has sounded more hawkish since he failed to get traction on an immigration reform bill in the Senate.

By largely steering clear of divisive social issues, Bush and Rubio can build a conservatism that is contemporary and popular. They have a Republican agenda to meet today’s challenges. But if they fail to beat Cruz and the other throwbacks in this year’s presidential primaries, it might very well take another election defeat before the party is ready to accept it.

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