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Die Hard: The Republican Growth and Opportunity Report v the Radical Right

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 16:19

By Dr Niall Palmer, Dept of Politics and History, Brunel University

After Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election to the presidency, the U.S. electorate appeared to shift markedly to the right, beginning an era of resurgent conservatism which forced the once-dominant Democratic Party to nominate ‘centrist’ presidential candidates, dilute its liberal policy agenda and accept defeat or humiliating compromise on issues ranging from taxation and deregulation, to gun control and welfare spending.

The ‘Reagan revolution’ delivered three consecutive presidential election landslides for the G.O.P. and was confirmed by the ‘Republican revolution’ of 1994, when the party took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the mid-1950s. By 2005, Republicans had won or held the White House in five of the previous seven electoral cycles and had enjoyed almost unbroken control of Congress for a decade.

This record appeared to confirm political analyst Kevin Phillips’ famous 1969 prediction of an “emerging Republican majority” at the national level based upon long-term demographic, social and economic changes.

In 2000, Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s ideological ‘guru’, foresaw a permanent ‘realignment’ of the electorate. Large swathes of the white working and middle classes appeared alienated by liberal Democrats’ focus on social and cultural issues such as affirmative action, environmentalism and gay rights, rather than on ‘traditional’ issues such as employment and taxation.

Republicans were now overhauling Democrats in the race to control a majority of state governorships and legislatures. Meanwhile, Christian evangelicals provided the wealthy, highly-motivated ‘base’ for the G.O.P. that unions had once given the Democrats. Infiltrating state Republican organisations across the south and west, they pushed a hardline conservative agenda – intolerance of homosexuality, feminism, abortion and taxation and hostility to both the federal government in Washington and ‘media elites’ in Hollywood and New York – which aspiring Republican officeholders learned to adopt and promote, whether or not they sincerely believed in them.

Responding to these changes, the Democratic party stumbled badly at first and suffered landslide losses in 1984 and 1988, which reinforced right-wing Republicans’ confidence that loyalty to the first principles of Reaganism was the core element of electoral success.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, the first Democratic presidential win since 1976, was attributed to his party’s acceptance that they had largely lost the ‘battle of ideas’.

Clinton’s free-market economic policies and almost apologetic ‘progressivism’ demonstrated that the only electable Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s were, as he put it, “goddamned Eisenhower Republicans”. Under George W. Bush, the confident rightward march resumed, with deficit-busting tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, the shelving of the Kyoto agreement, two new conservative Supreme Court justices and an aggressively neoconservative foreign policy which disturbed some of the G.O.P’s Old Guard.

Around 2006, however, the ‘revolution’ began to consume itself. Intra-party disputes over immigration, domestic spending and corruption ended the Republicans’ nearly twelve-year control of Congress. The 2007-08 financial collapse damaged the party’s reputation for fiscal responsibility but radicals, galvanised by the anti-tax rhetoric of Grover Norquist, rejected calls to abandon right-wing economic orthodoxy and instead denounced the T.A.R.P. emergency bailout package as ideological heresy.

In Barack Obama’s first term, Republican congressional freshmen, elected in 2010 and supported by the Tea Party movement, intimidated traditional conservatives and moderates and viewed even Newt Gingrich and John Boehner as ideologically suspect.

The confrontational rhetoric of House radicals during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations helped Obama to occupy the vital political centre ground, closer to public opinion. While some Tea Partiers called the president a socialist and a secret Muslim, others openly encouraged Donald Trump’s fixation with Obama’s birth certificate. In the face of this barrage of trivia and obstructionism, Obama secured two notable victories – the killing of Bin Laden in May 2011 and a Supreme Court endorsement for the constitutionality of the central element of his 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This latter success, which provoked furious radical attacks on the conservative Chief Justice, John Roberts, was the totemic liberal victory on healthcare which had eluded Democratic administrations for decades.

In retrospect, the margin of Mr Obama’s re-election victory in 2012 was not as surprising as it first appeared. While many grass-roots G.O.P. activists blamed Mitt Romney’s ineptitude for the loss, more pragmatic party figures, including Arizona Senator John McCain and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, had been questioning the right’s strategy of disruption, non-co-operation and doctrinal purism for some time.

On March 18 2013, Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, held a press conference to launch the 98-page “Growth and Opportunity Project” report produced by a five-member panel which included former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer and former Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour. The panel contacted over 7,000 political activists, consultants and spin doctors, polled more than 2000 Hispanic voters and 2,640 women and ran an online survey attracting 36,000 participants. 750 meetings or phone calls and 800 conference calls were held with selected groups. Billed as a plan to “grow the Party”, the seven chapter report is also a frank assessment of the growing problems the G.O.P. faces with its deteriorating public image and dwindling voter base.

Neither the panel nor Priebus bothered to downplay its negative conclusions, using unusually stark language to describe its findings. Greater flexibility was needed and a willingness to listen on issues such as immigration and gay rights, even if this offended the rigid ideologies of the base, Priebus observed.

Reacting to criticism that the party was perceived to be pandering to an ageing white male electorate while losing touch with ethnic minorities, women and younger voters, he added, “We have to stop divorcing ourselves from American culture.”[1] Priebus also noted failings in the party’s messaging – “We’ve done a really lousy job of marketing who we are” – and in its appeal to younger voters – “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents.” The price of failure, the report warns, could be political self-marginalisation.

Despite right-wing triumphalism, the party’s national election performance has steadily weakened. Republicans have lost the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections. There has been no convincing Republican presidential win since 1988.

In the period from 1968 to 1988, the party averaged 417 electoral votes to 113 for the Democrats. Since 1988, it has averaged only 211 to the Democrats’ 327.[2] The two Bush victories of 2000 and 2004 were hardly reassuring. The first was controversially awarded by the Supreme Court while Bush scraped only 16 votes more than the minimum 270 required in 2004, with an unimpressive popular vote margin of 50.7% to 48.3%.

Geographically, the party is in full retreat in its old New England bastions and rising numbers of Hispanic voters threaten to alter the political complexion of key states such as Florida to the Democrats’ advantage. California, the home of the 1978 ‘Taxpayers’ Revolt’ – the starting point for the ‘Reagan Revolution’ – was reliably Republican for over 30 years. It fell to Clinton in 1992 and has been a ‘blue state’ ever since.

Some analysts predict that the influx of Hispanics into Texas will turn the state ‘competitive’ by 2016 and blue by 2024. Joining New York (which has not endorsed a Republican since 1984) this lethal combination could produce a built-in Democratic advantage of 151 electoral votes, effectively locking Republicans out of the White House for years.

Population experts predict the U.S. will be almost 30% Hispanic by 2050, with whites shrinking to less than 50% of the population. There is traction in the claim that Hispanic voters naturally identify with core G.O.P. values such as low taxation, help for small businesses and religiosity. George Bush, for example, did well with Hispanic voters as Texas governor and as President but the party is still electorally threatened. “We have to engage them and show our sincerity”, the report urges.

The implication: publicly associating Hispanics with welfare ‘scrounging’ or referring to migrant workers as “wetbacks” are now as unpromising tactics for future success as rampant homophobia. An NBC/Wall Street Journal last year revealed 55% of Hispanics polled supported ‘marriage equality’. Similar polls show declining opposition to gay marriage among black voters.

As the ethnicity and sexuality cards lose their clout as mobilisation tools, moderate Republicans insist the party must abandon ‘scapegoating’ social groups and find more positive ways to attract voters (a practice even the internal report admits went on in some state parties). Further, it is estimated that more than 20% of the active electorate consists of single women, yet surveys suggest nearly 70% of this group voted Democrat in 2012, a repeating trend over the last few elections attributed to Democratic policies on healthcare, abortion and equal pay.

Republicans captured a majority share of married white women but this, again, is a shrinking demographic. Heavily represented in the black and Hispanic communities and among younger voters of all ethnicities, single women are growing in political influence and appear disturbed by the Christian fundamentalist precepts which have crept into G.O.P. rhetoric since 1980. Similarly, younger voters are deserting the party. Romney lost voters under the age of 30 to Obama by a 5 million vote margin.

The report notes, rather enviously, Democrats’ deployment of “young supporters as precinct captains and boots on the ground” and calls for Republicans to shed their cross, middle-aged image and “change the tone we use to talk about issues”.

Priebus’ biggest problem is that many of the report’s critics refuse to accept that any serious problem exists, much less a problem which cannot be cured by more doses of  brutalistic rhetoric. When ex-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, interviewed in May 2013 on Fox News Sunday, suggested that the RNC hang a “closed for repairs” sign on its door while it searched for new and positive policies, the conservative Washington Times denounced him as “an aisle-crossing dealmaker”.[3]

The editorial dismissed his comment that Reagan himself would struggle to succeed in the modern party as “preposterous.” Yet Dole was right. Reagan’s pragmatism toward the Soviet Union after 1983 outraged neoconservatives, while his deliberate failure to put the weight of the executive behind campaigns to outlaw abortion and reintroduce prayer into public schools left Christian activist leaders disillusioned.

Instead, the Times praised the Tea Party movement for galvanising the party, ignoring opinion polls suggesting that the group had become a negative factor for the broader, more moderate electorate. This defiance was echoed by Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the ‘Tea Party Patriots’, who claimed the party lost to Obama simply because it “failed to promote our principles.”[4] Similarly, Phyllis Shlafly, veteran campaigner on ‘family values’ issues, urged Republicans not to be diverted by the “myth” of the growing importance of Hispanic voters but to concentrate on fully mobilising the white electorate.[5]

Talk show host Rush Limbaugh claimed that party leaders were out of touch with the Republican base.[6] Ironically, Limbaugh was echoing the report itself, which opens with the claim that “The G.O.P. today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself.”[7] This criticism, in particular, bodes ill for party unity.

Limbaugh’s comment reflected a growing trend among grassroots activists to attack the congressional party and the RNC at any hint of compromise with Democrats. Opinion polls, meanwhile, continue to suggest voters are turned off by such intransigence. Republicans have already gambled and lost twice on this tactic – once during the 1995 government shut-down over deadlocked budget talks and again during the 2011 debt ceiling impasse. They emerged from both confrontations more damaged than the Democratic presidents they opposed.

To an extent, conservatives have become victims of their own success. The proliferation of right-wing media outlets since the late 1980s, the network dominance of FOX News and the high profiles of abrasive commentators like Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter encouraged the right to retreat into comforting ‘information silos’, there to feed on Reagan-worship, while demonizing liberals, secularists, gays, illegal immigrants, the dependent poor and single mothers as subversives undermining the ‘American Dream’. The tone of their rhetoric was brash and defiant, repelling many voters who are fiscally conservative but socially progressive. Hence Priebus’ urgent call for a change of tone. “When someone rolls their eyes to us”, he argues, “they’re not likely to open their ears to us.”

Liberals, of course, have their own silos but the Democratic Party under Clinton and Obama has become rather more light-footed than its opponents. Democrats learned the hard way that electability depended on a pragmatic balancing of short term goals with longer term political and cultural trends.

The Republican ‘base’ seems unwilling to accept that revolutions run out of steam. Twenty four years have passed since Reagan left office – the same gap separating the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt from the moon landing.

America is changing fast and moving on. New issues are trending and new ways to motivate voter groups are essential. Attempting to force new voters into an out-dated ideological straitjacket will only guarantee a return to minority status.

We have been here before. In the 1980s, die-hard liberals refused to see the writing on the wall, idealised a former president (FDR for the older generation, JFK for the younger) and chanted ideological mantras to drown out warnings that they had lost touch with mainstream voters.

Years of internecine struggle were needed before pragmatists could regain control and steer the party back toward the centre. Rather than learning from this harsh lesson, the die-hard purists of the right seem hell-bent on repeating it.

[1] “What’s Inside The GOP Plan To Fix Itself”. Elspeth Reeve. The Atlantic Wire.

[2] Growth And Opportunity Project. 4.

[3] “Editorial: Bob Dole’s Bad Advice.” The Washington Times. Online edition. 30 May 2013.

[4] “Blunt Report Says GOP Needs to Regroup for ‘16” Sarah Wheaton and Michael D. Shear. The New York Times. Online edition. 18 March 2013.

[5] “Phyllis Shlafly’s White Voter Mirage.” Jordan Fabian. ABC News. 29 May 2013.

[6] “Rush Limbaugh Blasts GOP over autopsy report.” Cheryl K. Chumley. The Washington Times. Online edition. 19 March 2013.

[7] GOP p.4.