Pollster and presidential adviser Pat Caddell, who ditched the Democratic Party back in the 1980s, now writes that the GOP is in danger of becoming completely irrelevant. It wouldn’t be the first time. Caddell notes that between 1932 and 1968, the GOP lost nine of 11 presidential elections and controlled the Congress for a grand total of four years. And it was worse than that: without Eisenhower’s two wins, the GOP would have likely lost 11 in a row. (And, as we know, Ike was hardly a fire-breathing conservative.) Since Reagan’s two terms, the Rs have lost the popular vote in seven of the last nine presidential elections.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal accepts that his GOP has become what many think it has always been, “the stupid party.” In a recent speech, he said the Republican Party “has simply lost its capacity to think about America as it is today — an America where, for example, most people no longer worry about gay marriage.”
Political parties that become irrelevant face an uncertain future. Take the Democrats after the Civil War. Associated with the discredited Confederacy, the Democrats lost nine of 11 presidential elections between 1868 and 1908. Before the Democrats came the Whig Party. Whigs were sailing right along until they failed to address the abolition of slavery issue. In came Lincoln and the Republican Party, and out went the Whigs.
By the early 1890s, the Democratic Party was being challenged by the People’s Party, the Populists. The Democrats, to avoid almost certain disaster, co-opted the Populists by nominating their candidate as the Democratic candidate in the election of 1896. The Democrats lost that election but regained relevancy.
Gov. Jindal’s comments, while certainly important, don’t go nearly far enough. They could be taken to suggest that all his party has to do is spiff up it’s messaging. How about the old runway strategy? They could just add a few more token women, like our own Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who stands silently behind every photo op featuring the white male leadership. Maybe that would work. Or a token Hispanic could help eat into that 70 percent of the Hispanic vote that President Obama got.
The real problem for Republicans runs far deeper than appearances. In order to again be seen as relevant they need to risk jettisoning their base. It isn’t that the fundamentalists have any real options — except, that is, for staying home.
Democrats lost badly in 2010 in no small measure because the Obama White House had done a lousy job of keeping the base energized. Obama learned from that disaster and turned the tables in 2012. But the thing is, the Republican base is turning out in strong numbers and the party is still losing — badly — in the past two national elections.
Instead of remaking the party in the image of the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Dan Evans, Everett Dirksen, Howard Baker, Bob Packwood, Mark Hatfield and Chuck Hagel, what do the Republicans do? Acting like an organizational version of a Soviet self-criticism apparatchik, they find ideologically wanting even the likes of a Bob Bennett or a Richard Lugar. They even force a right-of-center moderate such as Orrin Hatch (who supported stem cell research) to take a purity test.
What we have seen, even since the 2012 debacle, is a party doubling down on ideological purity — a move that only serves to worsen its relevancy problem. The more ideologically pure the GOP becomes, the less relevant it becomes.
The GOP seeks to deal with the losing hand that ideology and demographics have dealt it by brazenly stealing elections. I refer to gerrymandering, supermajority elections (see Proposition 2 on your Spokane ballot) and bizarre ideas about how to ditch the Electoral College while avoiding the popular vote in the process.
Face-lifting won’t get it. Stealing will eventually backfire. Today’s GOP needs a public philosophy — period, end of story. Because right now, the party can’t answer the fundamental question: What does the Preamble of the Constitution mean?
A more perfect union? How many Red States today are considering secessionist proposals?
Justice? How do you deal with this question apart from considering the tension between equality and liberty?
Domestic tranquility? They propose to maintain at all costs what amounts to a me-first society, in everything from corporate behavior to tax policy to guns. That’s not a recipe for national peace.
Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity? How do you do this without being able to address questions going to fairness and intergenerational responsibilities?
Democrats fumble with these questions, too, no doubt about it. But the difference is that to most Democrats, these questions beg for consideration and answers. And most Democrats reject the idea that life in the American commons can be stomped out by these doomed political dinosaurs, lurching from one unpopular idea to the next, always repeating the same two words: “Free markets.”