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

Crashing the Party

Why the GOP Must Modernize to Win

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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?

ELDERLY IN REVOLT

Throughout most of their lives, members of the postwar baby-boom generation (now in their 50s and 60s) held views considerably more liberal than those of the generation before them (now in their 70s and 80s). As late as the year 2000, only 35 percent of baby boomers described themselves as “conservative.” Then came the financial crisis and the presidency of Barack Obama. The proportion of baby boomers who called themselves “angry at government” surged from 15 percent before 2008 to 26 percent after the financial crisis struck. By 2011, 42 percent of baby boomers were labeling themselves “conservative.” The politics of the soft-rock audience had converged with those of Bill O’Reilly viewers (median age: 72).

It’s important to understand what right-leaning baby boomers mean by the word “conservative.” On social issues such as gay rights and the role of women, boomers, like all Americans, continue to evolve in liberal directions. Nor have boomers become enthralled by the laissez-faire agenda of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On the contrary, people who are in their 60s today express much more suspicion of business than this same demographic cohort did in the 1990s, when they were younger and otherwise more liberal. Finally, despite the libertarian language of the Tea Party, boomer conservatives are not demanding to be “left alone.” In fact, 64 percent of boomers say they worry that the government doesn’t do enough to help older people, a much higher proportion than in any other age group -- higher, even, than among people in their 70s and 80s.

What boomers mean when they call themselves conservative is that they have begun to demand massive cutbacks to spending programs that do not directly benefit them. Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. Not surprisingly, then, boomers say they want no change at all to the Medicare and Social Security benefits they have begun to qualify for. They will even countenance tax increases on high earners to maintain those benefits. But compared with older Americans in the late 1980s, today’s aging boomers express less support for such fiscally liberal statements as “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.”

Boomers’ conservatism is founded on their apprehension that there’s not enough to go around -- and on their conviction that what little resources there are should accrue to them. Over the first Obama term, polls recorded a big jump in the proportion of those 50 and older expressing concern about “government becoming too involved in healthcare”: eight points among those 65 and older and 16 points among those between 50 and 64. It might seem paradoxical that people on Medicare, or soon to qualify for it, would oppose a further expansion of the government’s role in health care, but it actually makes perfect sense: boomer conservatives fear that government in the age of Obama will serve somebody else’s interests at the expense of their own.

Republicans have responded to boomers’ fears by reinventing themselves as defenders of the fiscal status quo for older Americans -- and only older Americans. In 2005, Bush proposed bold reforms to Social Security, including privatization. But since 2008, the GOP has rejected changes to retirement programs that might in any way impinge on current beneficiaries. The various budget plans Republicans produced in the run-up to the 2012 election all exempted Americans over age 55 from any changes to either Social Security or Medicare.

People who feel squeezed economically can easily feel that they face a cultural onslaught, too. The baby-boom generation is about 80 percent white. Of the Americans who lacked health insurance prior to the 2008 financial crisis, 27 percent were foreign-born. It’s not surprising that many boomers perceived Obamacare as a transfer of health-care resources from “us” to “them,” in every sense of the word “them.” And when the president who champions this transfer is himself the black son of a foreign father, it’s even less surprising that economically anxious people might identify that president as the embodiment of a direct threat to their expected place in the scheme of things.

Especially since the scheme of things is changing so fast. Young voters were as enthralled by Obama as their elders were frightened. He won 66 percent of the under-30 vote in 2008 and, despite four years of economic hardship, 60 percent in 2012. Not all young voters support the Democrats, of course, but the nonwhite ones overwhelmingly do, with 67 percent approving of Obama. A Pew Research Center survey found that 71 percent of nonwhites under age 30 want a bigger government that provides more services. The aggregate result is the most pro-government generation the United States has seen since the generation that voted for President Franklin Roosevelt exited the stage. An increasingly diverse young America wants the government to do more for it. An increasingly anxious older America now views government activism as a threat to its own rightful share of state resources.

This generational tension thrusts the Republican Party into an awkward spot. The elderly and disabled consume 41 percent of all federal spending. Any project to reduce federal spending while exempting such a huge budget category would require either drastic additional defense cuts or a desperate political struggle to concentrate all cuts on the comparatively meager federal programs for working-aged Americans and the young. The former necessity explains why the once internationalist Republican Party so willingly accepted the defense sequester of 2011. The latter explains why budgetary politics in the Obama years has grown so polarized: the GOP’s largest voting constituency has convinced itself that it cannot afford any compromise at all.

THE RADICAL RICH

“Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’” So wrote the venture capitalist Tom Perkins in The Wall Street Journal in January 2014. By no means has Perkins been the only wealthy person to hear the tread of Brown Shirts on the march in the Obama years. In 2010, the financier Stephen Schwarzman equated Obama’s attempt to raise taxes on hedge funds with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and in March 2014, Kenneth Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot, warned that liberal arguments about income inequality reminded him of Nazi pro-p-aganda. Although Schwarzman and Langone later apologized for their choices of words, the hyperbole revealed how threatened the nation’s richest citizens feel by the political tendencies of postcrisis America. As the party of opposition to Obama, the GOP has benefited from the resulting surge of funds from the frightened wealthy -- but that support has come at a heavy price.

During the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, and then through the long recovery that began in 2009, Republicans offered an economic message of fiscal and monetary austerity. Their donors feared that low interest rates and quantitative easing would generate inflation, so Republicans opposed those policies. Their donors feared that today’s big deficits would be repaid out of future higher taxes, so Republicans had to oppose stimulus spending on roads, bridges, and airports. They voted against extending unemployment benefits, emergency aid to states, and even the payroll tax holiday -- all measures Republicans have supported in the past.

As a Democrat presided over the slow recovery from a catastrophic slump, Republicans proved unable to capitalize on his struggles and find common cause with the jobless. During the 2012 election, Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe -- his private comment that almost half the country had sunk into hopeless dependency on the government -- proved so damaging because it was no gaffe at all. Wealthy Republicans had been talking that way all through the Obama years. The dependency idea formed the central theme of a speech that Representative Paul Ryan gave a year before he became Romney’s running mate, in which he argued that the United States was nearing a perilous “tipping point” that would be followed by “long-term economic decline as the number of makers diminishes and the number of takers grows.” The American Enterprise Institute even released a campaign-season cartoon video warning in Dr. Seuss–style verse that the grasping demands of the takers “took from the makers their makering pride.”

During the campaign, the radicalization of Republican donors propelled the party to advocate policies that were more extreme than anything seen since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign: draconian cuts in benefits for everybody except retirees and near retirees, plus big tax cuts for high earners. So radical was the Romney-Ryan budget plan that when a Democratic super PAC told a focus group what it entailed, The New York Times reported, “The respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.”

But ordinary rules about what politicians will or will not do have ceased to hold since 2008. The radicalization of the party’s donor base has led Republicans in Congress to try tactics they would never have dared use before. During the debt-ceiling debates of 2011 and then again in 2013, Republicans in the House of Representatives came within days of causing the U.S. government to default on its financial obligations. In the 2011 crisis, they succeeded in forcing major budget cuts. The result was the sequester, the supposedly temporary deal that will, if sustained, cut the U.S. military’s fighting forces in half by 2021. The second time, House Republicans gave way -- or, rather, 87 of them did, which was enough to avoid catastrophe. But 144 voted against raising the debt ceiling to the very end. These nays were not populist insurgents. They included establishment Republicans -- such as Ryan, the chair of the Budget Committee -- who got much of their campaign money from businesses that would have faced disaster in the event of a government default.

One would normally expect wealthy Republicans to value predictability and stability. But if they perceive their country to be predictably and stably hurtling toward socialist oppression, then even the richest will demand massive resistance by any means necessary. Hence the amazing spectacle of Stanley Druckenmiller, a leading money manager, endorsing the nonpayment of the country’s obligations to suppliers, employees, and many beneficiaries. In 2011, Druckenmiller told The Wall Street Journal that a default was “not going to be catastrophic.” He went on: “What’s going to be catastrophic is if we don’t solve the real problem,” by which he meant federal spending.

Such radical logic from the elite has been heard only during the most extreme crises in U.S. history, on the eve of the Civil War or at the depths of the Great Depression. Yet it has reappeared in the Obama years, fatefully constraining and shaping the thinking and actions of the leaders of the Republican Party, who have taken risks with their party and their country that would otherwise have seemed unimaginable for the leaders of a conservative party.

LOOKING BACKWARD

It’s never easy for a defeated party to rethink its recent history. After Richard Nixon narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, Republicans rebounded toward the radical right, setting up Goldwater for a landslide defeat in 1964. Democrats did the opposite after Hubert Humphrey lost to Nixon in 1968, nominating the antiwar candidate George McGovern in 1972. Intense partisans believe in the “say it louder” approach to politics. If the voters refused your offer of ham and eggs, it was because they wanted double ham and double eggs. And so a defeated party often directs at least as much of its ire toward its previous leader as it does toward its enemy in the White House. The GOP today is conforming to this familiar pattern, blaming Bush and Romney for straying from conservative dogma instead of grappling with the dogma itself.

Consider how the shrewd and conservative-friendly pundit Sean Trende of the website RealClearPolitics explained the June 2014 Republican primary defeat of Eric Cantor, the House majority leader:

The Republican base is furious with the Republican establishment, especially over the Bush years. From the point of view of conservatives I’ve spoken with, the early- to mid-2000s look like this: Voters gave Republicans control of Congress and the presidency for the longest stretch since the 1920s.

And what do Republicans have to show for it? Temporary tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a new Cabinet department, increased federal spending, TARP[the Troubled Asset Relief Program], and repeated attempts at immigration reform. Basically, despite a historic opportunity to shrink government, almost everything that the GOP establishment achieved during that time moved the needle leftward on domestic policy.

Trende’s analysis contains much truth, but not all of the truth. Bush’s deviations from conservative orthodoxy do explain why the party has veered rightward since 2008. But condemning deviations has also provided a welcome escape from uncomfortable questions about whether party orthodoxy still produces positive results under contemporary circumstances. After all, when it came to economic management, Bush governed very much in the manner of President Ronald Reagan, although he failed to achieve Reagan’s outcomes. Bush cut income taxes -- but instead of a 1980s-style boom, he got stagnating wages followed by a severe global recession. Like Reagan, Bush relaxed regulation of business, especially energy and finance. Instead of a surge in productivity, however, he presided over a housing bubble and a spike in gasoline prices.

What to think of this? Better not to think of it at all. Better to double down. Since 2006, those Republican politicians who have ventured new ideas have been compelled to disavow those experiments in order to retain any chance of surviving future party contests. Romney had to distance himself from the health-care reform he oversaw as governor of Massachusetts. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich both had to walk back their early support for actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Reformist tendencies are bubbling among some conservative intellectuals. Let’s hope the reformers gain wide attention. But as of today, the price of influence in conservative intellectual life -- or even continued employment -- remains circumspection. To acknowledge such manifest realities as that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay remains unhealthy for a Washington Republican’s career. Just days after a group of forward-thinking GOP strategists published Room to Grow, the most authoritative Republican reform program outlined to date, Cantor, who had strongly championed the reformers, lost his career to an ideologically rigid primary challenger. American conservatism in the twenty-first century remains defined by the concerns, issues, and even personalities of the twentieth. When the Republican Party turned its back on what Bush called “compassionate conservatism,” it chose to return to a bygone approach. Today’s GOP thinks it is making progress even as it retraces its steps.

Yet there is a limit to how long this backward motion can continue. Party dogma meets electoral reality every two years, and for Republicans, that reality is looking increasingly inhospitable. From 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five of the six presidential elections (two by landslides) and averaged 52 percent of the popular vote. In the six presidential elections since then, however, they have won just twice and averaged just 45 percent of the popular vote. Something is obviously going badly wrong, and has been going wrong for a long time.

Political consultants want to sell Republicans on the idea that their problem is the Hispanic vote and that this problem can be fixed by embracing immigration reform. Yet in 1992 and 1996, Hispanics made up only two percent and five percent of the electorate, respectively, and Republicans still got hammered. Besides, the claim that Hispanics are natural Republican voters rests on the stereotype that Catholics must be culturally conservative. Although first-generation Hispanic Americans do favor outlawing abortion by large margins, according to a 2007 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, only 43 percent of second-generation Hispanic Americans feel that way -- virtually identical to the proportion among non-Hispanic whites. And abortion has little salience as an issue for both generations anyway.

On the economic questions that matter most to them, Hispanics are highly liberal. That same 2007 Pew survey found that 69 percent of those polled wanted the government to guarantee health insurance for all, and 64 percent preferred more government services even at the cost of higher taxes. The reason is straightforward: the Hispanic population is disproportionately dependent on public assistance (22 percent have received food stamps, for example, as compared with 15 percent of non-Hispanic whites). Poor people are entitled to vote their pocketbooks just as rich people are, and it’s not surprising that people who need government help would pull the Democratic lever more reliably than the Republican one.

What’s more ominous for the GOP is how poorly it now fares among parts of the population that might normally be expected to vote for it. For decades, the Republican Party predominated among university graduates, as it did with professionals, the affluent, and mainline Protestants. In 1988, George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis among voters with bachelor’s degrees by 25 points, according to exit polls. In 2008, Obama beat McCain among that same demographic by two points. No mystery why: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for the first time in U.S. history, women became more likely to complete college than men, and since the 1980s, women as a group have consistently preferred Democrats and their emphasis on more generous social provisions. Even upper-income women lean Democratic by a wide margin -- a wider margin, in fact, than that by which upper-income men favor Republicans.

Above the U.S. norm in terms of their education, income, and propensity to be self-employed, Asian Americans form another natural constituency that the Republicans are failing to capture. North of the U.S. border, Chinese Canadian voters opt for the Conservative Party by large margins (according to internal party polling, those who spoke Cantonese at home broke two to one for Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2011). But 73 percent of Asian Americans voted for Obama in 2012. Most Asian Americans aren’t Christian, and it seems to be the GOP’s sectarian religiosity that repels them.

Political pundits are always asked questions about who. Who will Romney pick as his running mate? Who can beat Hillary Clinton? But the most important questions in U.S. politics deal with the what. It wasn’t their personalities that kept McCain and Romney from winning the vote of the female partner in an accounting firm, the Indian American hotel owner, the Japanese American architect, or the gay retired military officer. McCain and Romney were fine candidates. The problem was that they were forced to contort themselves and embrace messages that must-win constituencies found deeply obnoxious. The GOP’s political prospects will brighten only when it finds a more appealing what.

THE RIGHT STUFF

What will that what consist of? Any aspiring center-right party hoping to succeed today must match its core message of limited government and low taxes with an equal commitment to be culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible. In the United States, with all its global responsibilities, there is an additional necessary component: a commitment to U.S. primacy that is unapologetic yet not bellicose. The passage of time will help Republicans get from here to there, bringing new generations to the stage and removing others with outdated ideas. Repeated defeat administers its own harsh lessons. But most of all, new circumstances will pose new challenges -- and open up new possibilities.

The fear of the “tipping point” that gripped Republicans in 2012 was exactly wrong. Obamacare won’t turn Americans into grateful serfs, endlessly voting Democratic to guarantee their handouts. Every other advanced country has some kind of universal health-care program -- and also a center-right party that wins much (and even most) of the time. Right-of-center governments currently hold power in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and many other places. These parties haven’t run out of issues on which they can disagree with their social democratic opponents, and they’ve found plenty of voters willing to cast a ballot for private initiative and business enterprise.

In fact, many center-right parties in foreign capitals have enacted reforms bolder than anything even contemplated in Washington. Sweden pioneered state-funded charter schools back in the 1990s, and the United Kingdom followed suit in 2010. Canada’s Conservative government responded to the 2008 financial crisis with a narrowly applied jolt of fiscal stimulus -- and Canada not only recovered faster from its recession but also emerged with a debt-to-GDP ratio lower than that of the United States before the crisis. Australia offers student loans that do a better job of serving only the disadvantaged and at lower cost to both taxpayer and student.

Conservatism should be thriving in the United States. The Obama administration has raised taxes on high earners to the highest levels in 30 years, while failing to act on promises to reform the corporate tax system. Yet even as taxes rise, government revenues fall short of what’s needed to meet existing commitments to retirees -- never mind to fund the costly new social spending that is the chief domestic legacy of the Obama years. The health-care system in the United States continues to cost more and deliver worse results than that of any other developed country. Instead of market mechanisms to deal with climate change, the Obama administration has ordered up a new system of bureaucratic regulation of carbon emissions. More children are growing up in fatherless homes, more men in their prime working years have quit the job market, and the benefits of economic growth seem to be flowing to fewer and fewer families. Washington’s allies and rivals alike sense a weakening of American power -- and a loss of American purpose.

The United States desperately needs a party of business enterprise, of American leadership, and of work and family that can win elections and govern effectively. Instead, the country’s center-right has detoured into an ideological dead end. It must speak for a coalition broader than retirees and the rich. Above all, it must accept -- and even welcome -- that in the United States, as in every other developed country, universal health insurance is here to stay.

TOMORROW'S CONSERVATIVES

One of the direst effects of being a party of the old is the risk of becoming infected by the pessimism of the old. It is overwhelmingly tempting to people contemplating mortality to infer that what holds true for them must also hold true for the nation. Who wants to imagine that things will get really good just as they shuffle off the scene? The tone of recent conservatism has been elegiac when it hasn’t been reckless. “To those who say it was never so, that America’s not been better, I say you’re wrong. And I know because I was there. And I have seen it. And I remember.” So said the Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole to the Republican delegates in San Diego in 1996. I was there. I saw it. I remember how they cheered -- and how wrong they were.

Over the decade and a half that followed Dole’s speech, the United States achieved what likely ranks as the swiftest decline in crime in human history. The Internet revolutionized life and business. Auto fatalities plunged, dropping by 8,000 a year. The emissions that cause acid rain were cut in half. The abortion rate dropped to its lowest level since abortions were legalized, in 1973, and tobacco and alcohol consumption fell, too. The proportion of black Americans graduating from college passed 20 percent.

Conservatives may not be optimistic by nature. But even they should at least appreciate that Americans have never had so much worth conserving. The angry, insurrectionary mood of the past half-dozen years is as unjustified as it is dangerous to the stability of American government.

For every action, whether in physics or in politics, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The liberal surge of the Obama years invites a conservative response, and a multiethnic, socially tolerant conservatism is waiting to take form. As the poet T. S. Eliot, a political conservative, once gloomily consoled his readers, “There is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” The message reads better when translated into American vernacular: “It ain’t over till it’s over. And it’s never over.”

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