Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus is in the news this week, for his "autopsy" report on the Republican Party in the 2012 election. Priebus and a few other hardy Republican souls took months to examine what went wrong for the party, and what should be done to set things right for the next time around. Their prescription for change, unfortunately, is to change how their message is delivered rather than to change much in the way of Republican policies. I'm certainly not the first to point this out, but this idea works out to exactly the same as what you are left with when you remove the vowels from the national party chairman's name: RNC PR BS.
Without a major new direction for their policies, all the outreach and high-tech communications in the world aren't going to help. If the core agenda is the same, the results will be similar. Priebus can throw money at the problem all he wants, but in the end it will be nothing more than a Republican National Committee public relations blitz trying to sell the end product of cattle. The recommendations from the new "autopsy" (to put it even more pungently) can be likened to standing in the room of a real autopsy, and attempting to make things better by spraying air freshener around so people won't notice the stench of the carcass on the table.
I'd like to offer up my own prescriptions for the Republican Party, just in case they're truly interested in how they can modernize their party and attempt to stay relevant in national politics. The party's real problem, of course, is demographic change. The core "angry white man" base of the Republican Party is shrinking as a percentage of the voting public. Some might even call it the "old, rich, angry white guy" base, in fact, to further define its limits. Republicans are getting shellacked among pretty much every other demographic.
But Republicans aren't scaring voters away in droves just because of a few loose cannons talking about subjects like rape -- voters from other demographics are smart enough to have looked not just at what Republicans are saying but at what they do when they get in power. You can be the most polished politician around when it comes to speaking in public, but that doesn't really make the party platform any different -- and voters have been noticing.
Republicans most need traction with three major demographic groups to save their party's national electoral chances: women, minorities, and the youth. Here are the things Reince Priebus should have pointed out, issue-by-issue, if he truly wanted to transform the Republican Party so it could expand its reach among these three groups.
One brave Republican senator has now come out in favor of gay marriage, after thinking about it for two years after his son announced he was gay. This leaves, by my count, 44 other Republican senators and over 200 Republican House members who have not offered support for gay marriage.
Republicans have spent roughly the last three decades demonizing gay people. First, it was that gays were "promiscuous" (back in the 1980s and early 1990s). "OK, fine," said gay people everywhere, "you want us to commit to each other? Then let us get married." The first beachhead of civil unions was established, which set off a backlash in the GOP who gleefully used it as a wedge issue for the next 15 years. Gay marriage was banned at the federal level, and in every state they could get it on the ballot. Some states even banned it more than once, just to drive the point home.
But now the wedge has turned. Gay marriage is now a winning proposition on the ballot. This is only going to increase over time. To put it bluntly to the Republican Party: this war is over -- you lost, and the gay folks won. Deal with it.
While there aren't that many gay people as a percentage of the population, this is an issue which resonates far beyond identity politics. Because young people, for the most part, simply can't understand why there's such an enormous fuss over the issue. The more intolerance shown from Republicans on gay rights, the more young people decide they can't ever associate themselves with the party. Intolerance, bigotry, and hatred are simply not "cool" or "hip" (or whatever the whippersnappers are calling good things these days). And while they're courting youth, perhaps Republicans could stop trying to make student loans more expensive and less available -- that might help, too.
The problem for Republicans here is a backdrop to a lot of their problems. The whole gay issue was built on religious grounds, and while politics may change over time, religion is a lot tougher to budge.
Republicans, however, may be saved from themselves on the gay marriage issue. The Supreme Court could just take the whole issue out of the hands of politicians once and for all. This would, ironically, help the Republican Party out of the corner it has painted itself in.
Republicans should return to their core value of "getting government out of people's lives" and extend that to sexual issues. "Get the government out of the bedroom!" could be a rallying cry, here.
Republicans, if they're ever going to make inroads with minorities, are going to have to stop demonizing and scapegoating them, and they're going to have to support some policies which stop making minorities' lives tougher. This is a big hill for the party to climb, needless to say.
African-American citizens have been the threat Republicans have been using to scare their angry white guy base for decades. This "Southern Strategy" needs to end. In particular, Republicans could do an about-face and start championing the right to vote, rather than attacking it in an effort to disenfranchise as many minorities as possible. One of the biggest lessons from 2012 was the overwhelming backlash against all the vote-suppression laws Republicans frantically passed. Instead of depressing minority turnout, it actually motivated minority turnout. People were so outraged at the Republicans' naked power play that they became determined to vote no matter what obstacles were placed in their path. This lesson should be taken to heart by any Republicans who still think voter suppression is a good way to win elections.
As far as I know, Republicans have exactly one policy idea that favors African-Americans and tries to make their lives better. Ironically, this is because "politics makes strange bedfellows" -- Republicans are waging a war on teachers' unions, and they happen to be helping minorities as a side effect. But school vouchers cannot be the end-all answer for Republicans. It's a pretty thin portfolio, to put it another way.
Of course, the biggest minority (and the fastest-growing) is Latinos. Priebus actually did state in his autopsy that if the Republican Party can't get behind real immigration reform, it might as well just fold up its tent on the national political stage. Whether this is possible or not may play out in the next few months in Congress.
Republicans' problem, here, is (once again) their history of demonization and scapegoating. They've got to drop their harsh rhetoric, and they've got to do so very quickly. Once a solid immigration reform plan is on the table in either house of Congress, look for how many times the word "amnesty" is batted around. Every time a Republican is quoted using this word, gaining support among Latinos will become that much harder.
But again, it's not just language. Democrats have (so far) been successful at framing this issue around a "path to citizenship." They have forced Republicans to get on board this crucial part of any legislation. That's a big victory already, but watch very closely as Republicans (especially in the House) try to make that path as rocky and inaccessible as possible. Especially insidious is Rand Paul's idea requiring five more congressional votes before any pathway even opens up. Paul is attempting to allow Republicans to vote now "for" immigration reform, and then vote later to slam the door closed. Watch for other such legislative trickery to be inserted in the bill during the process.
The thing about immigrants (at least the thing that I've noticed) is that they have a much longer attention span than the average American citizen. They remember, to put it another way. The Republican Party already has a lot of baggage to overcome with Latinos, and if they try to pull a fast one this year ("We're for a path to citizenship, but we're going to make damn sure that path is as horrendously difficult as humanly possible") they may sink their chances for the next entire generation.
Once more, it's not so much what Republicans say, it's what they've been doing to drive women away in droves. The "War On Women" is not going well, in other words.
The most-contentious front of this war is abortion, as always. The lesson the Republican Party is now sending to women across the land is: "Trust us with the reins of government, and abortion will be our number one priority." State after Republican-led state, there is a race on for who can pass the most restrictive anti-women's-health laws possible. Republicans have declared war on Planned Parenthood. They're voting for government to become more and more intrusive into what should be a discussion and a decision between a woman and her doctor. How is that "conservative" in any way?
Women are taking note. Each time one of these laws pass, more and more women turn and walk away from the Republican Party. As with gay rights, the problem here is that religion and politics don't mix especially well. I could see the Republican Party have an epiphany one day and declare: "We think government should stay the heck out of the examination room! Big Government is never the answer!" Problem is, I cannot see the Religious Right ever being able to accept this.
It's not just abortion, though. Republicans in Congress created a meaningless 18-month stall on the Violence Against Women Act, and then went ahead and voted for the same bill they'd been stalling. This sends a big message, guys. Republicans routinely block equal pay laws as well -- sending exactly the same message. That message is, stripped to the core: "We think old men should determine how women should live their lives." This is the ideology that needs to change, if the Republican Party doesn't want to see its share of women voters plummet in the next few years. Unfortunately, unlike immigration and gay marriage, I think this is one of the most entrenched policies in the party, meaning it'll be one of the hardest to change.
Rich old angry white guys aren't enough
Some Republicans are suggesting that the party flip its unquestioning support (one might almost say obeisance) to Wall Street, Big Banks, and Big Business.
Concentrating on Main Street might be a great idea for Republicans, because the Democrats are vulnerable on the issue (Democrats do lip service to Main Street issues, but only rarely manage to pass anything which changes anything in a meaningful way). Taking on "Too Big To Fail" would be an excellent opportunity. Fighting for tax cuts for the middle class instead of the uber-wealthy might be another way to go.
But the real conclusion here is that the Republican Party needs big changes of one sort or another. They could begin by tossing a few "social issues" over the side of the boat. Or, at the very least, stop demonizing their opponents in vicious attack ads designed to create fear and hatred of the "other." Maybe Reince Priebus can manage to change this culture, at the very least.
But it's not just language. It can't be just PR BS. If the Republican Party has any chance of turning around its fortunes and developing a more-inclusive brand for the future, it's going to require jettisoning some of the antediluvian thinking underlying the occasional ugly comment on rape.
Of course, I offer all of this advice up to the Republican Party knowing that it will be (at best) ignored by them, or (at worst) attacked and ridiculed. "You're on the Left, therefore you're saying Republicans should become Democrats!" might sum this attitude up, which is why I offer the advice so freely. Knowing they won't listen.
The Republican Party of the last three decades has been overwhelmingly successful with a "circle the wagons" approach to politics. This worked well when America's demographics were different, and American public opinion was more malleable on some of these wedge issues. But it's no longer the Reagan 1980s. What used to work is simply not going to work any more (or, in some regions "much longer"). Driving away Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, gay rights supporters, women, single mothers, young people, college attendees, and all the other scapegoats is taking a much bigger toll these days. The circle of wagons is a lot smaller, proportionally, and those driven out from that circle are growing in numbers each year.
The Republican Party is truly at a crossroads. It could modernize some of its positions and attitudes, in a bid to stay relevant to national politics in 21st century America. Or it could shrink to becoming a party of the South, the Plains, and a dwindling portion of the Mountain West.
I think I know which path Republicans are going to take in the foreseeable future. I could be wrong, but I think that path leads away from the crossroads across a pasture covered in cowflop. Reince Priebus is already skipping down this path, desperately spraying air freshener as he goes. There's another path to take -- a path which leads back to clearer air -- but somehow I don't think the Republican Party is quite ready to walk that path yet.
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