When entering the wilderness after two consecutive election defeats, it is good to have a vigorous and clarifying debate — because something is not working.
Demographics are destiny, and election returns show that the GOP base is shrinking. The party is decisively winning only whites, regular church-goers, voters over age 60, and residents of towns with populations under 50,000. In a country that is increasingly diverse and urban, that is a recipe for long-term disaster.
What is the source of this growing disconnect with the American electorate? In his article “Scapegoating the Social Right,” Ramesh Ponnuru claims that columnists who have argued for the need for the GOP to modernize and move to the center — including Kathleen Parker, David Frum, Max Boot, and myself — have our analysis all wrong, and that very little change is needed from the Bush-Rove play-to-the-base politics of the past.
As an independent, my interest is in restoring a sense of national unity and generational responsibility to our politics. For the Republican party, a return to its historic principles of individual freedom, fiscal responsibility, and national security — with renewed consistency — would not only help unite our nation, it would lead to the GOP’s political resurgence. As part of that effort, social conservatives should remember that the essence of evangelism is winning converts.
The 2008 election exit polls showed that 44 percent of American voters identified themselves as moderates, 34 percent called themselves conservatives, and 22 percent described themselves as liberals — even after a deeply polarizing period in our national politics. It should be clear that any party that wants to reach a majority needs to reach out and connect with moderates who are alienated by the ideological extremes of both parties.
What’s also clear is that Obama did a much better job of this than McCain-Palin or Bush-Cheney — winning not just 90 percent of liberals and 60 percent of moderates, but 20 percent of conservatives. He won virtually every swing-state battleground, expanding the Democratic map into the south and west. He won with a margin larger than George W. Bush ever achieved — by reaching beyond the liberal base.
Republicans are in retreat across the nation — not just retrenching, but nearing extinction in whole regions. Ten years ago, GOP governors were in place across the northeast. Today there is not a single Republican member of Congress in all of New England, the party’s historic home.
Ramesh does a bit of rewriting history when he says the GOP won the 2002 and 2004 elections because “Republicans ran hard on social issues and the courts.” In fact, both those elections were overwhelmingly referendums on the attacks of September 11 and their aftermath.
The 2006 and 2008 defeats were not defined by an absence of “social issues and the courts” but were backlashes against the Bush administration. Polls showed that the 2006 loss of Congress was not primarily about pre-Surge chaos in Iraq (as many liberals believed) but a widespread rejection of unprecedented pork-barrel spending, ideological excesses, and outright corruption of the Republican Congress under the supposed conservative champion Tom DeLay.
In 2008, as Bush’s approval ratings hit historic lows and nearly 90 percent of Americans believed the country was moving in the wrong direction, polls indicated that social issues were not near the top of most voters’ concerns. (Rudy Giuliani’s problem converting his popularity to early primary votes was not, as Ramesh believes, chiefly because of social issues.) In the general election, McCain ran well ahead of the damaged Republican brand because of his reputation for principled independence, until the financial crisis exploded and Sarah Palin proved to be one of the most polarizing figures in modern American politics.
The cure for these problems would seem to be restoring the Republican party’s credibility on fiscal responsibility (as the inevitable aftermath of the bailout smorgasbord will require) and retaining a philosophy of being on offense when it comes to the wider war against Islamic terrorism. These are issues that not only unite the Republican party, but also unite the GOP with the vast majority of centrists and independents.
Social issues are the most polarizing elements of the GOP agenda (as Ramesh acknowledges, writing “There is no question that social conservatism repels some voters”). They are also among the most deeply held, being based for many in religious belief.
And while intra-party debates about the political applications of literal biblical interpretations do little to attract centrist voters, nobody is arguing, as Ramesh suggests, that social conservatives be drummed out of the Republican party or that social conservatism is solely to blame for the GOP’s current problems. In fact, the obsessive hunt for party heretics — an overheated hobby for some folks on the Far Right — needs to stop.
What is being questioned is whether the Republican party should have a social-conservative litmus test for its leadership — or whether, in the spirit of rebuilding a big tent, there is room for the idea that on abortion, for example, good people of conscience can disagree about this most difficult personal decision.
The Gallup poll has been tracking attitudes on abortion for three decades, and in 2008 found that only 17 percent of Americans want abortion illegal in all circumstances, consistent with the GOP party platform’s support for a constitutional ban on abortion. On the opposite extreme, Gallup found that only 28 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal under all circumstances. Most Americans are in the middle, favoring reasonable restrictions within which a woman — not the government — has a right to choose whether she will give birth.
What about rank-and-file Republicans? In June 2007, the Fabrizio/McLaughlin Poll interviewed 2,000 self-described Republicans, and found that “72% of Republicans asserted that the government should not play a role in controlling choices for women, believing instead that the decision to have an abortion should lie with women, their doctors, and their families” while “53% of the Party believes that the GOP has spent too much time focusing on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage.”
And while Ramesh and other conservative commentators point to the passage of Prop 8 in California as evidence of social conservatism’s continued appeal, they avoid mention of the fact that anti-choice ballot measures in California, Colorado, and North Dakota were simultaneously rejected by voters this year.
As the Prop 8 debates indicate, social-conservative hot-button issues now go well beyond the abortion politics of the past 35 years. The gay-civil-rights movement in this country is gaining momentum, with a majority of younger white evangelicals supporting some form of legal recognition for civil unions or marriage for same-sex couples.
All this is evidence of the larger problem that needs to be addressed by the Republican party: There is a core contradiction at the heart of modern conservatism. The party’s proudly stated belief in expanding individual freedom is at odds with much of social-conservative policy. There is a collectivist streak that runs through social conservatism — a desire to have the government make decisions for individuals, especially on questions of reproductive and sexual freedom.
If the definition of individual freedom championed by conservatives is effectively limited to economic freedom — where getting government out of the boardroom is traded for more government in the bedroom — the growing rift between small-government libertarians and the big-government impulse of some social conservatives will ultimately rupture entirely.
These tensions may be resolved by new leadership that consistently reasserts the big-tent tradition to include genuine ideological and demographic diversity. On the issue of abortion, for example, the next generation of GOP leaders can focus on common-ground measures that seek to reduce the number of abortions and increase the number of adoptions.
Any student of history should not underestimate the difficulty of redirecting the defiant traditionalist impulse in American politics. But building a political movement around resenting demographic change or resisting modernity is doomed to fail as well.
During the 1980s, liberals like Jesse Jackson believed that the reason Democrats lost three successive presidential elections in landslides was that the party was not offering a clear ideological contrast. Today, the same ideologically self-reinforcing rationale is being deployed by social-conservative Republicans, and there will be similar results — until the party recognizes the need to modernize and reform.
One of the questions that face Republicans is whether they will proactively address their current electoral deficits or whether they will opt for a stay-the-course form of denial that will wait for Democrats to ideologically overreach in Congress and then claim that as a victory.
Such an essentially passive strategy will not cure the deeper demographic problems which ail a party that is old, un-diverse, and increasingly ideologically and geographically isolated.
Every crisis presents an opportunity. On the issues of national security and fiscal responsibility there’s no reason the Republican party cannot reassert core principles while reconnecting with centrist and independent voters. These efforts will be aided if Republicans apply a new consistency in their claim to represent individual freedom. If the Party of Lincoln rekindles the urban Republican reform tradition, it can play electoral offense again and present a party that actually looks like America, not a 1950s conception of the country. All this will be helped along if social conservatives embrace the big tent again — and not treat allies with differing opinions on social issues as loyalty suspects or second-class citizens.
Great parties grow — they reach out and compete for voters in the center of the political spectrum. That does not mean abandoning core principles — but it does mean being willing to modernize. The admonition of James Reston still applies today: “The decisive battleground of American politics lies in the center and cannot be captured from either of the extremes, and any party that defies this principle does not improve its chances of national power or even effective opposition but precisely the opposite.” Or, as Bob Dylan said, “he not busy being born is busy dying.”
— John Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He was the director of speechwriting and deputy policy director for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign.