Changing the Coin Toss

As a growing number of conservatives insist that the GOP needs to rethink or at the very least recast its ideological commitments in order to remain politically viable, Seth Masket offers a contrary view in a recent issue of Pacific Standard:

Some political science studies have noted that members of Congress who vote too ideologically or too often with their party tend to pay an electoral price for it. And, to be sure, while polarization is occurring today among both parties, the Republicans appear to be running to their extreme more quickly than the Democrats are running to theirs. What we don’t see, however, is evidence that this extremism is hurting Republicans electorally, at least not yet. If the economy had been experiencing a recession last year instead of modest growth, Mitt Romney would be president today.

Part of Masket’s point is that the “economic fundamentals” pointed to a narrow Obama victory, and so the outcome of last year’s presidential election was hardly a shock. This is a reasonable point. Yet advocates of a GOP shift to the center on core economic policy issues are generally motivated by the sense that longer-term changes in the demographic composition of the electorate represent a challenge to a political movement rooted in the interests and sensibilities of native-born white Anglo voters living in rural and small and mid-sized metropolitan areas, a large majority of whom identify as Christians. So while delayed marriage, the maturation of the Asian and Latino electorates, the decline in religious observance and the rising influence and representation of non-Christian religious communities, and the sharp shift of dense inner suburbs of large metropolitan areas to the center-left didn’t doom the Republican Party in 2012, these phenomena arguably contributed at the margin to President Obama’s victory and are likely to be a more significant factor in elections to come. Hence the widespread interest in crafting a more compelling domestic policy message, which entails rethinking at least some GOP ideological commitments, e.g., shifting from calls for near-term fiscal consolidation to calls for a more growth-friendly agenda built around the interests of middle-income parents.

Masket doesn’t dismiss this possibility out of hand, and he offers a useful corrective to the DLC narrative. But he remains skeptical of GOP doomsaying:

Would it help for the Republicans to have such an effort today? Well, maybe, but there’s not overwhelming evidence that they’re suffering for being ideologically extreme just yet. Yes, the Republicans lost the popular vote in five of the past six elections, but that can largely (with the possible exception of 2000) be explained by economic growth trends. Barack Obama did almost exactly as well as we should have expected last year given the economy’s record of slow but steady growth. Had there been a recession last year, it would be President Mitt Romney writing congratulatory messages to Pope Francis this year, regardless of his (Romney’s) ideological stances. It’s possible that Tea Party insurgencies have led to a few Republican Senate losses in the last two cycles, but that’s about it.

Parties do tend to moderate the longer they’re out of power, so it’s not surprising to see them having conversations along these lines. But we don’t have much reason to think they’ve made themselves unelectable just yet. History suggests that, knowing nothing about the candidates or the conditions of the economy three years from now, they’ve got about a 50-50 shot at winning the next presidential election. Chances are that some sort of GOP-DLC won’t really change that coin toss.

The best substantive argument for rethinking GOP ideological commitments is not that doing so is the only way to win elections, though reformers often leverage this argument to persuade their “donorist” rivals. Rather, it is that it will make the party better at governing.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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