Republicans and the Three Stages of Grief

Republican Presidential candidates Ted Cruz (R) and Donald Trump spar during the Republican Presidential Debate in Detroit, M
Republican Presidential candidates Ted Cruz (R) and Donald Trump spar during the Republican Presidential Debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. / AFP / Geoff Robins (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

The Republican Party is imploding. As political debates devolve into clashes over hand size and manhood, the party has watched its chances of winning in November slip away. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six elections, and they are looking anxiously at adding to their streak this year. I can't predict what will happen to the party, but I can suggest that it will need to move through the three stages of political grief before it can once again be competitive on the presidential level. They are, in fact, the same stages that the Democratic Party worked through following Hubert Humphrey's loss to Richard Nixon in 1968.

Stage 1: Denial

Defeat inevitably produces calls for ideological purity. After Humphrey's loss, "new politics" advocates clamored to push the party further to the left, claiming that Humphrey had been too wishy-washy on Vietnam and unwilling to advocate for a dramatic increase in social spending. They wanted the party to appeal to young, poor and minority voters.

What they failed to recognize was that the Democratic Party was running on only the fumes of the Roosevelt revolution. Enormous demographic changes, particularly white migration to the suburbs, the expansion of the middle class, and the emergence of divisive cultural issues, had fragmented the old Roosevelt coalition. As the social and political analyst Ben Wattenberg pointed out at the time, most Americans were "unyoung, unpoor, and unblack." Despite these obvious warning signs, "new politics" reformers gained control of the party in 1972 and nominated liberal South Dakota senator George McGovern , who went on to lose in a landslide to Nixon.

Today, the Republican Party is experiencing the same pressure for ideological purity. The "Tea Party" is the conservative version of the "new politics"--ideological purists who are willfully oblivious to reality. In politics, demography is destiny, and it is obvious to just about everyone that the only way that the Republicans remain viable is to appeal to the fastest growing segments of the population--socially liberal young people and culturally diverse recent immigrants, especially Hispanics. Older white men and religious conservatives cannot sustain the party, except perhaps, in off-year congressional elections. But Tea Party activists force candidates to pledge fidelity to the holy trinity of conservative social issues--opposition to abortion, gay rights, and immigration. To paraphrase Wattenberg, most Americans are not anti-abortion, anti-gay, or anti-immigrant.

Until Republicans stop denying the new political realities, they will continue to lose presidential elections.

Stage 2: Battling

Once enough party leaders emerge from denial, they must revive the battle for the heart and soul of their party. After 1972, Democrats spent two decades trying to redefine their party. Primaries usually involved titanic struggles over competing visions of what it meant to be a Democrat. In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy, hoping to keep alive the party's liberal tradition, challenged the incumbent president of his own party. In 1984, former Vice-President Walter Mondale faced a spirited challenge from Colorado senator Gary Hart, who tried to appeal to independent voters with his message of "new ideas." Four years later, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson battled technocrat governor Michael Dukakis for party control. Each contest presented primary voters with dramatically different visions of the future of their party.

Once they work through their denial, Republicans will need to present candidates with broader ideological range. This year, all the party candidates, with the possible exception of Rand Paul and John Kasich, have been tripping over themselves for the title of "most hardcore conservative." There are big differences in style and temperament, but little in substance, which is why Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have been sparring for months over the tiniest nuances of their hard line anti-immigration policies. They all claim to be heirs of Ronald Reagan, without realizing that the "Great Communicator's" legacy has become a burden. Reagan created an alliance between traditionally market-oriented Republicans and Moral Majority evangelicals. That coalition worked in the 1980s, but as social values have evolved, the religious right's stranglehold on the party has limited its ideological flexibility. We will know that the Republican Party is back when it finds a candidate who is as different from Ronald Reagan as Bill Clinton was from Franklin Roosevelt.

3. Acceptance

In 1992, after two decades of intense internal warfare, the Democrats redefined their party's identity with the nomination of Bill Clinton. The Arkansas governor became the first Democratic nominee to articulate a post-Roosevelt vision for the future. He advocated a chastened liberalism, one that recognized the limitations of government power while also acknowledging that Washington had a positive role to play in American life. Clinton advocated positions that would have been unimaginable a decade earlier, promising to be tough on "law and order" and to "end welfare as we know it." In doing so, he appealed to traditional Democratic constituencies while making inroads into suburban communities in the North, and large swaths of the South, that the party had not won since 1964.

As much as they will hate to hear this, what the Republicans need is a Bill Clinton--an enormously talented politician who, through the force of his personality and charisma, and the power of his message, can reorient the party. It would need to be a candidate whose philosophy is rooted in conservatism, but who is capable of redefining what it means to be a conservative. And it would have to be someone who can appreciate the importance of evangelicals without ceding them the power to define the party's position on social issues. They will also face an obstacle that did not exist in the 1990s. In the wake of Citizens United, the "Republican Bill Clinton" will have to find a way to convince the party's big money donors to give him/her the wiggle room to make the party relevant again.