Bush, Demography, and The Future of the GOP

The defection of Arlen Specter to the Democrats has reignited the debate over what direction the Republican Party should be taking to return to power — or heck, at this point, to regain enough votes to mount a modicum of opposition to the Democrats’ agenda. The way I see it, there are two basic explanations for the current fortunes of the GOP, each with different ramifications.

It Was Bush, Stupid — Under this mode of analysis, Republicans lost power primarily because President Bush and his policies were seen as a failure by the vast majority of Americans, and the Democrats were able to exploit this in 2006 and 2008, aided last year by a talented candidate in the form of Barack Obama.

If this is really what it boiled down to for most voters, then there really isn’t much that the Republican Party can do at the moment, because their prospects will largely be decided by whether Obama’s policies succeed or fail. If his spending policies lead to higher taxes, inflation, and anemic economic growth and his national security decisions lead to an international crisis or an attack on the homeland, then Republicans will be in a strong position to mount a comeback. If Obama’s policies succeed, then the GOP’s prospects look grim for the foreseeable future. This is the simplest way of thinking about things.

Demographics are Destiny — Other analysts emphasize certain long-term trends such as: a rising minority population and decline in the percentage of voters who are white males, middle-class voters increasingly disenchanted with the GOP, and young voters who are more socially liberal. Critics of the Republican Party will prescribe all sorts of remedies for these challenges, and unsurprisingly, those remedies tend to correlate quite closely with whatever a given critic’s own views happen to be. So, depending on who you talk to, Republicans either need to reestablish themselves as the party of small government or abandon limited government dogma; they either need to remain socially conservative to attract middle-class voters who may not vote Republican on economic issues, or abandon social conservatism so they are seen by younger and urban/suburban voters as being more tolerant –and so on.

As much as I’d like to argue that the Republican Party would thrive as long as they adopted my personal views, the truth is I have no idea how to solve this demographic Rubik’s Cube. The problem is that policies that the party may adopt to win over one group of these voters will hurt their chances with another group. For instance, if Republicans gave up their opposition to gay marriage, it may help their chances among younger voters, while hurting their chances among blacks and Hispanics, who remain more opposed to gay marriage than the population at large. If the GOP embraces comprehensive immigration reform, it may help them win over more Hispanics (though John McCain’s experience would suggest otherwise), but it could hurt them among working class voters who believe that mass illegal immigration cuts into their wages. If they become more open to bigger government, they may attract some moderates, but they could also lose young professionals who disagree with social conservatives but would vote Republican if they believed that the party would actually limit the growth of government. None of this even takes into account the fact that any decision by Republicans to stray from their current basket of positions risks alienating the base of the party, so any shifts would have to gain more new voters than they lose in existing voters.

I tend to be of the opinion that the perceived effectiveness of policies in terms of economic conditions and the state of our national security have more of an impact on votes than demographic patterns, so most of my writing has been within that framework. But if others are right and demography truly is destiny, then I see no way that the Republican Party can survive. At least not without changing so drastically, that it may as well go by a different name.