On ABC’s Sunday news program, This Week, George Will showed the exasperation that is fast becoming the norm in the Republican Party. He said that if the Republicans can’t win the White House in the current economic environment, they should get out of the business. He was, of course, talking about Mitt Romney. But the problems with the party are not Romney’s alone. The party is at risk of being a regional party and losing many national elections in the years to come.
Here’s why, and why it is bad for America.
First, for American democracy to function, we need two strong parties — maybe even a third. Unfortunately, we are at a place where each party thinks they are one election away from hegemony. But James Madison did a very fine job of making the work of government difficult indeed. Protection of the minority, balance of power, and the constant tension of federalism and states’ rights ensure tough sledding for whoever has the edge. One party rule would be a terrible thing and, thankfully, very difficult as well. Even a regional party can put sticks in the spokes.
Second, the Republican Party suffers from the same ideological trap that the Democrats experienced in the 1970s and '80s. Just as the American people saw Ronald Reagan as a change agent and the Democrats as defenders of a status quo, so too, the Republicans of today seem to be fighting battles they have already lost.
Examples abound. Not so long ago, Karl Rove used the “specter” of gay marriage to get George W. Bush re-elected. Today? Forget it. It won’t work. Times are changing and people are remembering.
Immigration was once the classic wedge issue for Republican candidates. California Gov. Pete Wilson used Proposition 187 in the early '90s to win re-election. He and his supporters ran ads showing Mexicans running across the border with a scary voice intoning: “They keep coming!” Wilson was re-elected but Latinos were lost as Republican voters for a generation. And Marco Rubio aside, they show little interest in appealing to them.
Romney can’t bring himself to endorse even the idea of the Dream Act. During the Republican primary season, there was a competition to see who could build the biggest, most electrified border fence and deport the most people.
On health care, Romney demonizes the Affordable Care Act and says he’ll repeal it first chance he gets. But now, polling shows people like it, so he says he may keep some of it. Well, he should know what’s in it since it’s basically what he passed in Massachusetts.
Republicans also seem intent on alienating women voters, something at which they excel. On Feb. 16 they actually held a congressional hearing on insurance coverage for birth control with an all-male panel. Couple that with the recent “legitimate rape” comment by their candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, and you have a problem that even Ann Romney yelling “I love you women!” can’t solve.
The list could go on and on.
In the early '90s, when the Democrats hadn’t been in the White House since the '70s, along came a governor from a small state in the south with some ideas on how to remake the Democratic Party into a national party again. Bill Clinton believed that Democrats needed to be more open to change and have a bigger tent. Through his work with the Democratic Leadership Council, he endeavored to bring the party to the center. He believed there was room for pro-trade Democrats in the party and that reforming government was not anti-government.
Clinton annoyed a lot of Democrats. His vice president, Al Gore, famously debated Ross Perot on the North American Free Trade Agreement and made the case that it would eventually benefit all three countries, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was also a milestone that went counter to much of the party’s established constituencies. The Clinton-Gore reinventing government campaign and welfare reform showed that Clinton could work across party lines, reform government, and was open to new ideas.
He knew how to work with Republicans. Being from Arkansas really didn’t give him much of a choice. And much as the Republicans try to portray President Obama as an old-time big spending liberal, he just isn’t. He, like Clinton, is at heart a pragmatist.
And that brings us back to the Republican Party. Who will bring them back to the center? How can they demonstrate that theirs’ is a party of the future and of inclusion? George W. Bush tried with his brand, “compassionate conservatism,” which leads one to wonder if most conservatives are not compassionate? The younger Bush also tried to reach out to Latino voters with some success.
But his brand was not on display at the Republican National Convention. In fact, it seemed that the party wanted you to think he had never been president at all — banking on a sort of mass amnesia.
The sad thing is that the Massachusetts governor version of Mitt Romney could probably provide a worthwhile debate and choice. But he was killed off in the Republican primary. The current Romney cannot win and will not contribute anything that will withstand the test of time. As the weeks wear on, he will search for his identity much like Al Gore tested clothing choices. He will try for authenticity in the same way John Kerry pretended to like NASCAR. And in the end, in the words of George Will, he will have to get out of the business.
The question still stands: Who will make the Republican Party a national party again? Or will they be content to shove sticks in the spokes and complain that nothing gets done?