Crashing the Party

Why the GOP Must Modernize to Win

Partied out: a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Florida, August 2012. (Reuters / Eric Thayer)

For the six years since President George W. Bush left office, his party has turned its back on him. Bush spoke at neither the 2008 nor the 2012 Republican National Convention. When aspiring successors to his former office mentioned him at all during the primary debates, they cited his legacy as something to avoid repeating. Yet Bush may prove much harder to ignore at the party’s next convention: one of the most mentioned possibilities for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee is the ex-president’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Another Bush? How could this be? The answer is that reports of the demise of the Republican establishment have been greatly exaggerated. The outlandish characters who ran for Senate in 2010 and president in 2012 have mostly faded from the scene. The large donors who supported George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney continue to hold sway within their party.

Yet observers shouldn’t be misled by the GOP’s back-to-Bush drift. Three big trends have decisively changed the Republican Party over the past decade, weakening its ability to win presidential elections and gravely inhibiting its ability to govern effectively if it nevertheless somehow were to win. First, Republicans have come to rely more and more on the votes of the elderly, the most government-dependent segment of the population -- a serious complication for a party committed to reducing government. Second, the Republican donor class has grown more ideologically extreme, encouraging congressional Republicans to embrace ever more radical tactics. Third, the party’s internal processes have rigidified, in ways that dangerously inhibit its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The GOP can overcome the negative consequences of these changes and, in time, surely will. The ominous question for Republicans is, How much time will the overcoming take?

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