Tough times in the Grand Old Party

Has the GOP met its own criteria for winning 2016?

Why This Matters | Perrin Brown | January 28, 2016

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“The GOP 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, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”

This excerpt could be taken from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Instead, it’s from the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report from the 2012 election. This report, crafted from thousands of data points and interviews, explained how the GOP would have to change to win the White House in 2016.

The report stressed four issues:

1.) Messaging = Modernize the party’s platform to appeal to individuals of all economic statuses and all age groups.

2.) Openness = Stop preaching to people who already agree. Instead, engage moderates.

3.) Shifting demographics = Realize this will require new strategies to engage these voting blocks.

4.) Follow state strategies = Republicans control 31 Governor’s mansions, and the best way to win on the national level is to follow what’s worked on the state level.

Has this criteria been met? It depends.

Using the GOP’s own terminology, this election cycle’s “gubernatorial” wing, led by Bush, Rubio, and Kasich, has made progress heeding the advice of the report. But this wing of the party faces an even worse assault from a more destructive “federal” wing. Led by Trump and Cruz, this wing actively refuses to follow any advice from the dreaded “Republican Establishment.” Because the divide mentioned three years ago is even more entrenched today, the party is hardly in a better position to win the general election.

Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich reflect real strives to modernize the party. Kasich has expanded Medicaid, balanced Ohio’s budget, and remained popular in the most critical swing state. Bush, though long out of power, can claim to have effectively governed another electorally crucial state representative of America’s changing demographics.

These two candidates have addressed the major points from the 2012 autopsy, particularly demographics and messaging. Their tones on immigration reform and income inequality strike very different chords than what was heard in the last election cycle.

Both governors support a path to legalization for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country, a proposition actually more in line with traditional GOP values than Trump or Cruz would ever admit. In fact, the last three Republican presidents had much more pragmatic and humane stances towards immigration. In 2004, George W. Bush, who favored a more moderate stance on immigration, received 44% of the Hispanic vote, a party high. In 2012, Mitt Romney, who promoted “self-deportation,” received only 26%.

Bush and Kasich also reflect a shift in the party’s narrative on poverty and income inequality. Bush’s sound bite for strengthening the middle class, “Right to Rise,” hardly resembles anything of a “47%” doctrine. Combine this with Kasich’s well-known desire to help the poor, and you have a gubernatorial wing of the party that has somewhat shifted its tone on economic opportunity.

However, the divide mentioned in the autopsy report, between gubernatorial and federal, is deeper than four years ago. The federal wing of the party is gleefully hijacking the progress promoted by the likes of Bush, Kasich, and Speaker Paul Ryan. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump threaten to destroy their own party, and yet they lead all recent polls. This is dangerous for the party and the country.

David Brooks, a noted conservative, describes the danger in a recent column:

“Trump is a solipsistic branding genius whose “policies” have no contact with Planet Earth and who would be incapable of organizing a coalition, domestic or foreign. Cruz would be as universally off-putting as he has been in all his workplaces. He’s always been good at tearing things down but incompetent when it comes to putting things together.”

Instead of turning the party’s message towards George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” these two campaign on a platform of fear and loathing. They incite demagogic fear towards helpless refugees, and they loathe the “establishment,” which seems to be code for compromise or unity.

The best description of the rift in the party comes from Sean Theriault, a political scientist. He writes that the difference between John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, the two conservative Texas senators, is that “when John Cornyn shows up for a meeting with fellow senators, he brings a pad of paper and pencil and tries to figure out how to solve problems. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, brings a battle plan.”

These are tough times for the Grand Old Party. Part of the party desperately wants to modernize and actually govern, but the destructive wing of the party poses a greater existential threat. One can hope that the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire allow the gubernatorial wing to gain momentum. But don’t hold your breath.