Thumped convincingly in consecutive election cycles, the Republican Party now finds itself in its worst straits since the rise of the conservative coalition — a minority party without the White House, fewer seats in the House and Senate, only 21 governors and full control of just 14 state legislatures.
Most ominous for Republicans, the GOP is increasingly becoming less grand than old — and outdated. As reflected in Tuesday’s results and exit polls, it’s a party that is overwhelmingly white, rural and aged in a country that is rapidly becoming racially mixed, suburban and dominated by a post-Baby Boomer generation with no memory of Vietnam or the familiar culture wars of the past.
Beyond demography, the party is now, thanks to the outgoing president and some members of Congress, perceived by many voters as either incompetent, corrupt or just not standing for much.
Even on fiscal issues — for decades central to the GOP’s appeal — Republicans now lag.
In an election focused on the economy like none since 1992, Democrats had the advantage on which party would best address the current financial crisis, limit spending, reduce the deficit and cut taxes for middle-class voters, according to a pre-election survey taken across four battleground states — Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Colorado — by the American Issues Project, a conservative third-party group. Not coincidentally, each of those states — red in 2004 — flipped to the Democrats on Tuesday.
Intermingled with the cries of anguish in GOP circles this week — as well as a few choice words aimed at the McCain campaign — there is a common mantra: What do we do now? Interviews with some of the leading figures in the party, many of them representing GOP hopes for a future restoration, answer that question with a consensus that Republicans need not undergo major ideological shifts. Instead, these governors, former governors and members of Congress say the party must re-embrace its small government roots while striving to embrace the reform mantle and become relevant to the day-to-day concerns of average Americans.
All concede that the party’s once pristine brand name has been tarnished during the Bush era.
“I don’t think we’ve done a good job in the last two cycles of defining what Republicans are,” said North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr.
And if a Republican president and Republican-held Congress presiding over a massive increase in the size of government wasn’t bad enough for the party’s image, the shaky handling of the economic crisis this fall by the White House and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill was the last blow to conservative fiscal credibility.
“In the near-term, the answer is clearly yes,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said when asked if the bailout had hurt the party brand.
“It was a watershed moment,” added former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a vocal opponent of the $700 billion rescue package. “It went against every principle Republicans held.”
The hope now is that this election will offer a political cleansing of sorts, with Democratic dominance providing a fresh opportunity for Republicans to rebuild around new leaders, draw sharper contrasts and articulate conservative principles in a way that will lead moderate voters who’ve abandoned the GOP back into the fold.
“We’re still a center-right country,” said Sen. John Thune, a South Dakotan who is eyeing a leadership role in the new Congress and is seen by some in the party as presidential timber. “Democrats won those voters in the middle who ought to be part of our coalition.’
With Democrats firmly in control of both chambers of Congress, Thune said Republicans have a chance “to get back on offense.”
“I think this is going to be very liberating for Republicans in Congress.”
And Republicans are wastig no time in critiquing some of President-elect Barack Obama’s first moves.
“With the selection of Rahm Emanuel [as White House chief of staff], I think Sen. Obama is sending a strong signal of partisanship,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Emanuel has been offered the job, according to Democratic sources, but has yet to accept it. “He’s a hardball player if there ever was one. That doesn’t say much to me about this ‘post-partisan’ presidency.”
But while the GOP does battle with Obama and his liberal allies on Capitol Hill, other Republicans would like to see the party use this wilderness period to reassert itself at the state level and recreate the sort of coalition of conservative reform governors it had in the '90s.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the party should take four primary steps: show no tolerance for corruption, practice what it preaches about limiting the scope of government (“There should not be such a thing as a Big-Government Republican”), stand for working families and small business, and embrace reform.
“I hope there is a strong focus on recruiting candidates for governor as a top priority for 2010,” said Bush. “A reform conservative agenda can be shown at the state level regarding education, health care and environmental policy while the liberals advocate the status quo, just more of it, in Washington, D.C.”
Two young Republican governors who are being touted by some as future presidential candidates agree, noting that the party must win its way back by appealing to voters on issues on which it has largely been silent in recent years.
“We have to have actual ideas,” said the 47-year-old Pawlenty. “The Republican idea factory has dried up. And we’ve got to catch up on the key issues of our times — health care, renewable energy and education.”
“We need real solutions,” adds Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 37. “It’s not enough to be just against single-payer health care, for example. We’ve got to discuss how we promote private coverage, to apply our principles to the issues that affect people’s lives.”
“The other side is worse,” said Jindal, adding it is “not a very inspiring bumper sticker.”
Translating the theoretical to the practical is key, said Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia congressman who began a campaign this week to be elected minority whip, No. 2 in the party’s House leadership.
“We shouldn’t be talking about lower taxes because supply-side economics is better for Americans but because it puts more money in people’s pockets,” said Cantor. “Where we have to focus is on reconnecting with people across this country where they live.”
But while recapturing the advantage on issues is important, Republicans are frank about the urgent need to also become a party that looks like the nation America is quickly becoming.
Obama won over Hispanics — the country’s largest minority group and a target of ardent outreach by President Bush — by sizable margins, gains some in the party attribute to the perception fueled during the immigration debate that Republicans were hostile to Latinos.
Obama also trounced McCain among younger voters, who represent a powerful voting bloc for decades to come.
“I would suggest that conservatives need to do the math of the new demographics of the United States,” said Jeb Bush. “We can’t be anti-Hispanic, anti-young person, anti-many things and be surprised when we don’t win elections.”
“We’re not relevant to people of my generation,” admitted Rep. Paul Ryan, a 38-year-old Wisconsin conservative seen as a rising star on the right.
Ryan said the party had become ossified, emblematic of a despised status quo.
“No more old bulls, no moe old boys network, no more just bringing home the bacon to get reelected,” he said.
Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, spoke admiringly of Obama’s new majority
“He built a different coalition than has elected other Democratic candidates,” Jindal observed of the new president’s support from nearly all regions of the country and spanning many traditional divides. “We need to be aggressive for every one of those voting blocs.”
Pawlenty, the son of a truck driver who worked his way through college, is also passionate about the need to put a new face on the party.
“Demographically, culturally, technologically and economically, the country is changing,” he noted, while the GOP is “stuck in a 30-year-old feel in tone and image.”
“We need a more forward-leaning, newer, younger, more diverse party. That does not mean that our values and principles get thrown overboard.
“But you can’t be a majority governing party getting almost no support from African-Americans, modest support from Hispanics, with a major gap with women, and decreasing support from modest-income Americans.”
The party, Pawlenty concluded, “needs to be freshened up.”