As House Republicans gather in Colonial Williamsburg this weekend, it’s easy for them to despair and for Democrats to appear gleeful.
After all, Mitt Romney got walloped, the GOP lost Senate seats instead of gaining them, and their House majority is smaller and more fractured. And that’s leaving aside the much-discussed demographic changes that threaten to swamp the national party in the years ahead just as the Pete Wilson tough-on-immigration ’90s begat the crushing of the Republican Party in California. (See Larry Sabato on the GOP’s woes here. My colleague, Ron Brownstein, has been on the case for a long time, including here.)
As always, though, there’s hope in despair—seeds of renewal amidst the rubble. No one should sugarcoat the problems of the GOP. But as Democrats discovered in the early 1990s after losing their third presidential election in a row, or the GOP did after Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in ’64, there is a chance at a second chance if the party is willing to recalibrate.
Bill Clinton’s ’92 race was launched on fertile ground (a weak economy, the end of the Cold War, a third party candidate that fractured Republicans). But he famously trimmed the Democratic Party’s sails on issues like the death penalty and welfare, which had been crushing the party. (The tide has turned again on the death penalty, but that’s another matter.) In 1968, Richard Nixon bridged the defeated Goldwater wing of the GOP with the more traditional elements and had other things going for him (social turmoil, the George Wallace third party bid).
Today’s Republicans can count on some good trends in their direction, even while the demographic tide shifts against them. And if they can recalibrate, a la Clinton, they’ll be in even better shape. Herewith, seven reasons that the Republicans shouldn’t despair:
1. The economy’s getting better, but it’s still kind of lame. The Federal Reserve has said that it’ll keep interest rates low through 2014. That is not an encouraging sign about unemployment, which remains stubbornly high even as housing, retail sales and other indicia look better. Republicans can’t count on the economy to lift them out of the cellar in 2014 any more than it did in 2012, but it’s still likely to be a boost to them more than to Democrats. And, of course, the national debt will be on its way to $20 trillion by 2016.
2. The sixth year of a presidency is usually bad. Clinton’s Democratic Party picked up some House seats in 1998 because of reaction to the impeachment mess. But throughout the 20th century, the sixth year has generally seen a big loss like the Democrats in ’66 (Lyndon Johnson’s term was effectively JFK’s second) and Bush in 2006. Again, this isn’t enough to count on, but “Obama fatigue” is likely to set in.
3. Rubio offers a way out on immigration. As George W. Bush and even the much-maligned Gov. Rick Perry have shown in Texas, there’s a way for Republicans to garner enough Hispanic votes to stay in the game. (Why the culture of Texas and New Mexico has given rise to more Republicans who know how to navigate Hispanic politics than, say, Arizona and California, is a topic worth a book.)
If Republicans can recalibrate their position on immigration enough so that they move away from Romney’s disastrous “self-deportation” to some kind of pathway to legal residency, they’ll have gone a long way toward solving their problems. The conservative base may still entertain the fantasy that millions of illegal immigrants can be nudged and cudgeled into leaving Milwaukee for Monterrey and get back in line. But the sooner reality sets in — and it hasn’t yet — the sooner the party can come up with some kind of response to the Democrats. It won’t be enough to win a majority of Hispanic votes, which are motivated by issues beyond immigration. But they don’t need a majority of Latino votes, only a percentage of them high enough to give them an overall majority.
Marco Rubio, R-Fla., offers a way out. The senator’s position on immigration reform is similar to Obama’s and hasn’t gone much further than broad principles. If he ever actually draws up legislation, it’s sure to create more obstacles to gaining legal status than do the president’s ideas. But by coming up with an idea that creates a pathway out of the shadows, Rubio’s given the Republicans something they can take to Hispanic voters and use to distance themselves from the self-deportation rhetoric of the Romney campaign. Indeed, even Paul Ryan seems to get this having embraced Rubio’s ideas. If enough Republicans can be brought along then it’s potentially the kind of cultural breakthrough that could help them enormously come election time.
4. Finding a voice on gay marriage. Do Republicans have to embrace gay marriage in order to win the votes of gays or not to scare social moderates? It won’t happen and it’s probably not necessary. If they would just back off the support of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, that will go a long way. They can say that it isn’t going to happen for them to do so politically. And they can fall back on states’ rights, saying that it’s not up to Washington to decide this matter.
This might anger social conservatives, but it’s more or less an acceptance of reality. The constitutional amendment banning gay marriage can’t pass and the Supreme Court could well strike down the Defense of Marriage Act — meaning that the federal government will have to recognize same sex marriages. The Roberts Court is more likely to uphold California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage — practically inviting conservatives to join the fray in the states rather than in D.C.
None of this will be easy for the conservative Right to swallow, but it’s not unlike the abortion issue. Conservatives no longer realistically expect a constitutional amendment to ban abortion or even to overturn Roe. They’ve recognized that the fight is in the states. If they come to the same conclusion regarding gay marriage, it’ll free the GOP from one of its many burdens.
5. A governing party, not a protest party. The Republican Party has been primarily a protest party over the past two years, filibustering in the Senate and holding the debt ceiling and the budget hostage. At some point, they’ll have to become a conservative governing party that doesn’t mess with the debt limit or government shutdowns and instead finds other ways to pursue its agenda like, oh, persuasion. If this sounds like the political equivalent of telling a child to “Use your words,” it kind of is. But this shouldn’t be that hard. A Rob Portman party is going to find greater success than a Tim Huelskamp party.
6. You’ve already raised taxes on the rich. The president is insisting that additional deficit reduction be “balanced” through revenue increases and spending cuts. But Republicans have already raised taxes on the rich, and this takes a huge weight off of their shoulders. The whole “millionaires and billionaires” rhetoric has been taken out of Obama’s hands. Without that cudgel, Republicans are freer to take a harder line on taxes. Yes, they may have to see some deductions go, but House Speaker John Boehner already said he had $800 billion of those lined up. Even if Boehner’s numbers are hyped, Republicans can give some more on deductions and then hold the line on rates. They already gave at the office.
7. ‘Pro-life,’ not pro-Akin. Many states have governors who oppose legalized abortion. It’s not a killer issue, even in the liberal northeast where New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie hasn’t paid a price for his position. What whacked the part was the casual comments about rape and the policies behind it. Backing off that incendiary rhetoric and unpopular position could leave the party with its anti-legal-abortion base but without Todd Akin’s crazy talk about “legitimate rape.”
Out-of-power parties have to recalibrate but not necessarily retrench. Tony Blair did it with Britain’s Labor Party, as did David Cameron, the head of its Conservative Party. When you stop believing your only problem is communication and take a look at the policies that are doing you in, you have a chance at a comeback. The Republican Party has great strengths in a country with a deep libertarian streak. It’s not a goner any more than the Democrats were in 1972. The GOP can be competitive and it won’t take that much to make it so.