If the Republican Party is to retake power at a time when America’s demographics, labor market and social norms are undergoing profound change, we believe it must relax its attitudes about such issues as gay rights and immigration and tailor its economies policies to the concerns of the middle class. Some in the party recognize as much; others cling to what worked in the past.
America’s Republicans are hemorrhaging support among two of the constituencies that helped reelect Barack Obama in 2012: Hispanics and the young.
According to polling conducted by the Reuters news agency and Ipsos, the two groups are even less sympathetic to the right than they were three years ago:
In 2012, less than 31 percent of Hispanics who were likely to vote in the presidential election said they affiliated with the Republican Party. This year, the figure is 26 percent.
Among whites under the age of forty, there has been an even more dramatic shift. “In 2012, they were more likely to identify with the Republican Party by about 5 percentage points. In 2015, the advantage flipped: Young whites are now more likely to identify with the Democratic Party by about 8 percentage points.” Read more “Republicans Losing Support from Hispanics, Youth”
Whereas Bernie Sanders’ supporters look to the 1970s for inspiration, many of the Republican Party’s presidential candidates seem stuck in the 1980s.
In a debate on Tuesday, televised by the Fox Business Network, all of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination called for more deregulation and tax cuts: a combination of supply-side economic policies that has served their party well in the past.
But James Pethokoukis argues in the Financial Times that big tax cuts, particularly for the wealthiest, do not work in an age of high inequality and heavy debt. “Republicans need an economic agenda that respects markets while also recognizing the challenges facing America and its anxious middle class,” he suggests.
Deregulation and tax cuts under Ronald Reagan propelled America into a new era of prosperity.
Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate hosted by CNBC was easily the worst so far this year. The moderators seemed more interested in catching the candidates in hypocrisies and discrediting their looniest proposals than encouraging a substantive debate — but at the same time let some of the most outlandish claims go unchallenged.
America’s Republicans are supposed to be the party of opportunity. Yet its presidential candidates spend more time complaining what a bad state the Democrats are supposedly leaving the country in than discussing ways to make it better.
Michael Grunwald writes for Politico that the party’s most recent presidential primary debate was a depressing affair:
America’s potential, said Carly Fiorina, is being “crushed.” America’s military, said Marco Rubio, is being “eviscerated.” Working people, said Mike Huckabee, are “taking a gut punch.” The idea of America, said Bobby Jindal, is “slipping away.”
Scott Walker’s campaign for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination has so far not impressed this blog. The governor of Wisconsin seems to be trying to appeal to every constituency in his party at once and the easiest way to do that is not say anything meaningful.
Middle-class Americans — defined as those with college, but not a postgraduate, degrees and household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 per year — are a growing segment of the voting population and increasingly decide the outcome of national elections. Their interests suggest they should vote Republican but the right’s rhetoric is pushing some into the Democrats’ arms.
Both parties have their relatively reliable voting blocs. Democrats have been able to attract enough young and minority voters to make up for a shrinking white working-class electorate. Blue-collar voters with low-income service jobs have increasingly leaned Republican.
Both trends appear to have accelerated in recent years: the 2008 election of Barack Obama saw a high number of young and minority voters turn out while more white working-class voters shifted to the Republican Party in subsequent elections.
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.
Republican voters in the United States tend to be older than Democrats. This has been true for decades, so to argue, as Daniel J. McGraw does at Politico, that the Grand Old Party will “literally” die off overlooks the simple fact that people get more conservative as they grow older.
McGraw points out that young Americans are more liberal than their parents while the generation of their grandparents votes in greater numbers.
As America’s Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday on the constitutionality of gay marriage, Politico reported that many of the Republican Party’s contenders for the presidential nomination have struck a far less divisive tone on the issue than they did in the past. While they continue to tell social conservatives they oppose marriage equality, “It’s getting harder to believe them,” according to the political news website.
Republicans are struggling with one of 2015’s first cultural litmus tests, not wanting to offend social conservatives, a dominant force, especially in Iowa and South Carolina, or to upset the [Republican Party]’s donor class that’s increasingly pushing candidates to better align their position with the nation’s broader, rapidly changing electorate.
Last year, support for gay marriage reached 55 percent nationwide, according to the polling organization Gallup. That is up from just 40 percent in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president.
Even more tellingly, 63 percent of Americans now say gay couples should have the right to adopt children. The last time Gallup asked the question, in 2007, 50 percent of Americans said they shouldn’t.
Support for gay rights is strongest among Americans under the age of thirty. 73 percent of them say gay marriage should be legal while only 42 percent of pensioners agree.
This is a dilemma for both major parties. Democrats and Republicans who turn out to vote in presidential primary elections tend to be older and socially more conservative. This is especially true for Republicans whose primary electorate largely overlaps with the 45 percent of Americans who still oppose marriage equality.
Hence the candidates’ hedging on the issue. When Senator Ted Cruz, a firebrand from Texas, spoke with wealthy donors in New York City last week, he said he would love his daughter “just as much” if she were a gay. A few days later, he asked supporters in the early-voting state Iowa to pray with him that the Supreme Court wouldn’t rule in favor of gay marriage.
Jeb Bush, the former governor or Florida, Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, and Marco Rubio, a junior senator who declared his candidacy earlier this month, have all said they would attend the weddings of gay friends. Yet all three insist they don’t want to change the definition of marriage.
Outright supporting gay rights may be a bridge too far for even socially moderate Republicans like Bush and Rubio — for now. But the party knows it has to change.
A report commissioned by the Republican National Committee after Mitt Romney was defeated by Obama in 2012 recognized that “there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be.”
Gay marriage may not be a winning issue for Republicans but it is becoming a losing issue. If they want to remain competitive in national elections, they must appeal to the growing segment of the population that doesn’t care to continue to discriminate against gays.
The Supreme Court might just do those Republicans who agree a favor if it rules for gay marriage in June. If the highest court declares gay marriage legal, there won’t be much point in continuing to fight it.