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Republicans Recognize Their Party in Peril

The new RNC report has elicited a lot of reaction. I wanted to highlight just one element that I found encouraging, which is it clearly understands the magnitude of the challenging facing the national GOP.

The report cites the results of presidential elections from 1968-1988, when Republicans were utterly dominant (winning an average of 417 electoral votes); and from 1992-2012, when Republican have lost the popular vote five out of six times. (During that period no Republican presidential candidate reached even 300 electoral votes.)

I wanted to add several more data points to reinforce the reasons for concern.

On demographics: In 2012, Governor Mitt Romney carried the white vote by 20 points. If the country’s demographic composition were still the same last year as it was in 2000, Romney would now be president. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, he would have won going away. And if it were the same last year as it was in 1980, Romney would have won by a larger margin than Ronald Reagan. Instead Barack Obama won easily. 

On public perceptions: Last month a Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of respondents (and 65 percent of independents) agreed with the statement that the Republican Party was “out of touch with the American people.” Even 36 percent of Republicans thought their party was out of touch. And more than half of those surveyed (52 percent) said the Republican Party was “too extreme” (only 39 percent said that same thing of Democrats).

On party affiliations: In the Pew Research Center poll, respondents identified with Democrats more than Republicans by 14 points (51 v. 37 percent) when independents were pressed to say which party they leaned toward.

To add insult to injury, the RNC conducted focus groups in Columbus, Ohio and Des Moines, Iowa with people who formerly considered themselves Republicans. They described the GOP as “scary,” “narrow-minded,” and “out of touch” and said it was comprised of “stuffy, old white men.”

What this means is that unless the GOP makes some fairly significant course corrections, losses will continue to mount. To be clear: It’s not that a Republican candidate can’t beat a Democratic candidate at any particular point in time; it’s that the trajectory of events means that absent a new Republican Party, and a modernized conservatism, it will be harder and harder for the right to win. Republicans will have to produce more and more exceptional candidates and hope Democrats produce more and more sub-par ones.

For the GOP to once again become dominant will require significant upgrades in the mechanics of campaigning (from improvements in data-gathering, micro-targeting and social media outreach to earlier primaries and a better ground game). But it will also require a particularly talented presidential candidate who can recalibrate the party without ripping it apart, and a policy agenda committed to limited government while also repositioning the GOP in ways that addresses its weaknesses and signals to the public that it’s changing.

Fortunately, a lot of work is being done by policy thinkers, public intellectuals and lawmakers and governors on ways to deal with social mobility; exploding college and health care costs (including replacing the Affordable Care Act); pension and collective bargaining reforms; ending corporate welfare; breaking up the big banks; a simpler and leaner tax code; increasing child tax credits; taking advantage of the revolution in energy technology; strengthening our social and civic institutions; reforms in education and immigration; extending the principles of welfare reform to other federal-aid programs; overhauling our prison system; making adoption easier; and more.

This is not the time for intellectual rigidity and repeating the same slogans, only with volume turned up. Rather, people who represent different strands within the party need to engage each other with real arguments.

I have a hunch, too. Those who believe their main purpose in life is to expel heretics from the temple–who believe in addition by subtraction and purity over prudence–are going to make a lot of noise and issue a lot of threats. They’ll cite the Constitution without ever recognizing that it was the product of an extraordinary series of political compromises. And they will repeatedly invoke the name of Reagan even as they come across in most un-Reagan-like ways: agitated and angry, unhappy and bitter, full of scores to settle. They are fading figures, and on some deep level they recognize it.

The good news for the GOP is that political fortunes can shift fairly dramatically. But this will require an honest appraisal of this moment in time. The RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project does that, and for that reason alone it’s a useful contribution to the Republican future.