A Momentous Week, and a GOP That Needs to Change

The fight over the Confederate flag and the Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage all send the signal that Republicans need to adapt to keep pace with younger voters.

National Journal
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Charlie Cook
June 29, 2015, 4 p.m.

The mo­ment­ous events of the last week can be in­ter­preted in nu­mer­ous ways. But one thing has be­come in­creas­ingly clear: The Re­pub­lic­an Party needs to change.

One of the key or­gan­iz­ing prin­ciples—an ob­ses­sion, even—of Re­pub­lic­ans in re­cent years has been their vehe­ment op­pos­i­tion to the Af­ford­able Care Act. This has been the center­piece of Re­pub­lic­an rhet­or­ic and a fo­cus of the party’s le­gis­lat­ive agenda, with the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives hav­ing voted something like 60 times to re­peal or de­fund all or parts of the law. Obama­care will long be in the GOP stable of ex­amples of what they say are Pres­id­ent Obama’s and con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats’ ex­treme policies, but with the Su­preme Court’s King v. Bur­well de­cision, their fo­cus will need to shift to something else now.

Though Obama­care has been a di­vis­ive sub­ject, it is the con­tro­versy over the Con­fed­er­ate battle flag and the Oberge­fell v. Hodges Su­preme Court de­cision on gay mar­riage that bring to sharp fo­cus the cul­tur­al and gen­er­a­tion­al dis­con­nect between the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s con­ser­vat­ive base and the dir­ec­tion of the coun­try as a whole.

(RE­LATED: If They Were Go­ing to Kill Obama­care, It Would Be Dead By Now)

In the af­ter­math of the tra­gic shoot­ing in a Char­le­ston, South Car­o­lina church and the res­ult­ing fo­cus on the Con­fed­er­ate flag, with the not­able ex­cep­tion of Sen. Lind­say Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina and to a less­er ex­tent, former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush, the GOP con­tenders ini­tially avoided tak­ing a firm stand on the flag. That is fine with many in their base but not with mod­er­ate and/or in­de­pend­ent swing voters, or for that mat­ter, many Re­pub­lic­ans. And the gay-mar­riage de­cision again put GOP pres­id­en­tial con­tenders in a po­s­i­tion of choos­ing between their base and be­ing on the wrong side of his­tory—with all but a couple choos­ing the lat­ter.

Simply put, Re­pub­lic­ans are loaded up in a car, ra­cing to­ward a gen­er­a­tion­al cliff with their eyes fo­cused on the rear­view mir­ror, with many (but not­ably not all) ob­li­vi­ous to the so­ci­et­al changes tak­ing place all around them and the grow­ing wedge build­ing between their com­fort zone and pres­id­en­tial swing voters.

For me as a white South­ern­er, born in Louisi­ana and spend­ing my first 18 years there, the Con­fed­er­ate flag is a com­plic­ated is­sue. I spent much of my child­hood wear­ing a Con­fed­er­ate uni­form with a Johnny Reb cap (with the battle flag on the front) and car­ry­ing a toy rep­lica of a Civil War rifle, crawl­ing across my back­yard in a make-be­lieve battle. From roughly age 7 to 12, I can re­mem­ber my ho­met­own news­pa­per, the Shreve­port Times, car­ry­ing, of­ten on the front page, an “On this day in”¦” fea­ture with whatever not­able Civil War events oc­curred ex­actly 100 years be­fore. I can re­call see­ing the death no­tices of some of the last of the Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers; gen­er­ally they had been the young drum­mers of their ho­met­own units. In the 1960s, the Con­fed­er­ate battle flag rep­res­en­ted our her­it­age and our an­cest­ors—and yes, both my wife and I had re­l­at­ives who fought in the Con­fed­er­ate Army (though none to our know­ledge owned, or could have af­forded to own, slaves).

(RE­LATED: What 2016 Can­did­ates Are Say­ing About the Gay Mar­riage Rul­ing)

But over time, the bal­ance has shif­ted. That flag has come to rep­res­ent something dif­fer­ent, something that should, as Bush pushed for while he was gov­ernor of Flor­ida, move off the flag­poles and in­to the mu­seums, out of re­spect for Amer­ic­ans, many of whom are the des­cend­ants of slaves, who are just as much cit­izens as we are. The sym­bol­ism shif­ted from her­it­age to hate; rather than pay­ing homage to his­tory, the flag came to make the South a pris­on­er of its his­tory. It is time for the South and con­ser­vat­ives in the re­gion to move on, and al­low the Re­pub­lic­an Party to move on as well, not hold it pris­on­er.

For those up­set over the gay-mar­riage de­cision, their views were the ma­jor­ity opin­ion in this coun­try and car­ried the weight of law for a long time, just as bans on in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage and ad­op­tion once were too. Giv­ing wo­men the right to vote once seemed heretic­al to many. But so­ci­ety moves on. Change is of­ten dif­fi­cult to ac­cept ini­tially, but it is in­ev­it­able. I wrote about my own evol­u­tion on this is­sue in Janu­ary of last year; my jour­ney prob­ably wasn’t that dif­fer­ent from that of many oth­er people and from what, I sus­pect, many of the cur­rent op­pon­ents will even­tu­ally have. But polit­ic­ally speak­ing, all Re­pub­lic­ans have to do is to take a peek in­to the fu­ture, look at the polls, at pub­lic at­ti­tudes of Amer­ic­ans—in­clud­ing con­ser­vat­ives—un­der 40 and par­tic­u­larly un­der 30 years of age. There are fights worth fight­ing, but this one, like the one over the Con­fed­er­ate battle flag, is fu­tile and will only con­trib­ute to the per­cep­tion of a Re­pub­lic­an Party with ana­chron­ist­ic views of our so­ci­ety.

An­oth­er in­ter­pret­a­tion of the events of last week, though some in the GOP and in the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment will be re­luct­ant to see and ac­cept this, is that these de­vel­op­ments were a good thing for the Re­pub­lic­an Party. While midterm elec­tions are usu­ally about the past—ref­er­enda on the last two or six years—pres­id­en­tial elec­tions are gen­er­ally for­ward-ori­ented, about the fu­ture. Just as gen­er­als are of­ten said to want to fight the last war, some in polit­ics in­stinct­ively seem to want to de­bate the last de­bate. The 2016 elec­tion will be about the next eight years, not the last. Ad­di­tion­ally, the last thing that Re­pub­lic­ans should want to deal with go­ing in­to 2016 is more than 6 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans in states with no ex­changes sud­denly los­ing their health in­sur­ance sub­sidies and many ef­fect­ively los­ing their health care cov­er­age. Privately, many Re­pub­lic­an elec­ted of­fi­cials and strategists had been very wor­ried about this and are re­lieved that the threat has passed.

(RE­LATED: What Re­pub­lic­ans Would Give Up to Con­tin­ue Their Obama­care-Re­peal Cru­sade)

One can be­lieve that the Af­ford­able Care Act was hur­riedly pushed through at the wrong time, dur­ing the depths of the Great Re­ces­sion, when the fo­cus should have been on job cre­ation. One can be­lieve that while it was well-in­ten­tioned, it was a deeply flawed ap­proach. But it is, now and for the fore­see­able fu­ture, the law, and rather than fight­ing over the past, both parties should now be fo­cused on mak­ing it work, on reach­ing com­prom­ises to ad­dress its short­com­ings.

Re­pub­lic­ans need to do some soul-search­ing about their fu­ture and their re­la­tion­ships with voters of gen­er­a­tions to come. Vi­brant parties change with the times, ad­apt them­selves to chan­ging con­di­tions and cir­cum­stances. Maybe this past week will help the GOP do this.

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