As the battle rages within the Republican party over how to broaden their appeal without losing the base on issues like immigration, gay rights and such, Nate Cohn suggests some ways that the GOP can change its platform without giving up the core of their beliefs and preferred policies.
In the absence of great data on what the GOP should do, analysts and pundits are mainly resorting to what they do best: assuming that what they want is what the country wants. The more culturally liberal Republicans want the GOP to move left on social issues. The populists think populism would do the trick. The conservatives say they should go to the right. It’s all too predictable.
But there are limits to these targeted approaches. For one, parties can’t just excise parts of their base and win elections, especially when they’re the minority party. Moreover, any realistic solution won’t lead to massive gains: Republicans would still be vulnerable to Democratic attacks on their support for cutting entitlements or lower taxes for the rich, or opposition to abortion, gun control, and probably gay marriage. That limits how much they can gain among any particular group. Democrats also have the ideological flexibility to embrace good ideas and co-opt a strong Republican message, as they have done on energy. The Electoral College also makes it harder for a party to win with narrow, deep gains among any single group, like missing conservative white voters or Hispanics—there just aren’t enough them in the critical states. The GOP has a broad problem across a very diverse set of battleground states, and it will require an equally broad set of remedies.
So the best option is to spread the pain around. Don’t castrate the party, smooth out the many sharp edges of the GOP’s platform and message. Keep supporting tax cuts and less regulation, but add an agenda and message aimed at the middle and working class. Remain pro-life, but don’t appear opposed to Planned Parenthood or contraceptives, and return to supporting exceptions in instances of rape or the health of the mother, as President Bush did. Stay committed to religion, but don’t reflexively doubt the science of evolution and global warming, or the promise of stem cell research or renewable energy. Oppose gun control, but why force yourself to oppose background checks? Oppose gay marriage if Republicans must, but could Republicans at least support civil unions? On all of these issues, the GOP need not compromise on its core policy objectives, but can’t afford to consistently stake out ground so far from the center. That allows Democrats to cast the party and their core beliefs outside of the mainstream, which has already happened on abortion.
But they won’t because moderation is anathema to them. They have become a doctrinal party in which doctrine is eternally true and cannot be changed – whether that is reflected by the view that tax cuts are the solution to every economic problem, that no accommodation to gays can be made at all, that climate change is a hoax, or that all abortion is cold-blooded murder, etc…
They’re fanatics, much more interested in the ideological posture of purity than the compromises of government. So they will block all compromise. They know not what else to do.
And the Tea Party movement has only exacerbated that problem, as I predicted it would even as they were harnessing the energy of that movement to take control of the House in 2010. The dilemma is obvious: How do they hold on to the base and appeal to other segments of voters at the same time? It isn’t going to be easy for them. But I do think we’re seeing the beginning of that process, with people like Mark Kirk, Rob Portman and Lisa Murkowski coming out in favor of marriage equality and making a conservative argument for that position.
And don’t kid yourself into thinking that these problems mean they can’t win elections until they’ve fixed them. There’s a very good change that they’re going to win control of the Senate next year and the presidency in 2016, despite those well-documented demographic problems. If they do, however, I expect it will only delay the necessary moderation on key issues.