The moment exposed more than just the base’s animus toward the Affordable Care Act; it also laid bare perhaps the party’s greatest vulnerability: The perception lurking on the parapets that it is unfeeling and unsympathetic toward anyone “different.” In no sphere did this prove more damaging than the massive losses resulting from the party’s stance on social issues. The implosion went beyond the intemperate comments on rape and abortion from the mouths of Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In multiple policy areas from gay marriage to birth control, Republicans came across as the party attempting to stand athwart history, only to watch it whiz blithely by. The nation, says Malek, the former aide to Richard Nixon and Bush 41, is “irreversibly moving toward an acceptance of gay marriage.”
For Republicans, it is not an irreversible political problem, although the GOP-led House’s willingness to allow the Violence Against Women Act to expire at year’s hints at a too-gradual learning curve. The 11-point gender gap in November’s presidential exit polls (2 percentage points less than 2008’s divide) won’t fix itself.
One answer from forward-looking Republicans on how to resolve tensions over social issues is, unsurprisingly, to get these decisions as far away from Washington as possible. “Evangelical Christians in the South don’t need to give up on their traditional view of family; I don’t think that should happen. But they should be tolerant of people in their party who have a different viewpoint from them,” says Rand Paul. Davis adds, “The party has to be open to the regional realities of politics.”
Another solution, which crops up repeatedly, is to seize back the pro-family mantle, a reshaped one that is not, for instance, ipso facto exclusive of families with two parents of the same gender. “When Republicans say ‘family,’ it’s a code word for anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights,” says former Rep. James Kolbe of Arizona, who went public about his homosexuality in 1996 after voting for the Defense of Marriage Act. “When you talk about families, it’s got to be about kids growing up safe, about kids getting their education, about trying to retire comfortably. I get nervous when I hear Republicans talk about ‘family.’ ”
Not all Republicans will settle for moderation, though, pointing to a dangerous potential departure point for the party, an area where some moderates are willing to deal away the bedrock conservatives. Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa Christian conservative leader, says, “Mitt Romney called a truce on social issues” and points out that the nominee declined to participate in Chick-Fil-A day in support of the company CEO’s statements against gay marriage. “At the same time, you had President Obama embracing social issues. The fact is, if you have one party or one campaign highlighting social issues and you’re not willing to debate them on a difference of viewpoint or worldview, then their worldview is going to win. The other side is not calling a truce; the other side is trying to reshape this culture on secular-progressive terms.” A truce, Vander Plaats says, is “another term for surrender.”
To some extent the truce held; Romney shunned social issues, setting a precedent as the party’s standard-bearer. And, unlike in 2004, the GOP had no institutionalized efforts to leverage state ballot questions into up-ballot victories. That’s a template of intra-party tolerance that would work.
Step 10: Don't Go There
Just as Bill Clinton helped to repair his party’s fiscal-responsibility image with his New Democrat governing approach, Obama, in doggedly pursuing terrorists and in winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has reasserted his party’s ability to call itself aggressive on national security and foreign policy. Republicans have been left flailing, attempting to play gotcha over last year’s fatal attacks in Benghazi, Libya, rather than forming a coherent post-Bush foreign policy.
“Our country has become war-weary,” says Korn, a Bush White House veteran and a military spouse. Republicans “had that issue probably until the last two years of the Bush presidency.”
Again, in the void lies opportunity. The GOP has a palpable isolationist strain, overshadowed by the hawkish wing represented by Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham. Recall the House’s June 2011 rejection, fueled largely by antiwar Republican votes, of a measure to limit funding for the U.S. involvement in NATO’s intervention in Libya’s civil war.
Fortunately for Republicans, the political palatability of embracing its isolationist bloc dovetails with its current stated raison d’être of cutting spending. Romney lost the election by 23 points among 18-to-29-year-old voters, who have watched their friends spend the past decade in war zones. Now the GOP has an opportunity to burnish its brand among these voters, whom Obama has owned. “Traditionally, the peace candidate wins elections,” notes Spiker, who said that college students frequently approach him about bringing the troops home. “We have done well as Republicans when we are the peace party. And I think Americans are ready to see us out of Afghanistan, and I think that’s something that the party, as it’s choosing candidates in the future, needs to look at.”