I spent the last week in Washington State and had several conversations with people about the Republican Party. What I discovered wasn’t encouraging for the Grand Old Party.
The people I spoke to are life-long Republican voters, but to a person they were deeply disappointed with the GOP. When I pressed them on why, I heard different, and even competing, explanations. Some thought the Republican Party was too beholden to the Tea Party and too rigid on social issues. They were concerned the GOP was coming across as obstructionist and taking a suicidal position on immigration (by coming across as anti-immigration). Others believed the GOP was too moderate and conciliatory, that they were not Tea Party enough, and that they were taking a suicidal position on immigration (by embracing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants). Their level of unhappiness with the Republican Party was roughly the same—but for entirely different reasons.
Here’s where things get interesting. I decided to do my best Reince Priebus imitation, addressing as specifically and carefully as I could each of the objections that were raised. My interlocutors were often willing to concede the points I made. Yet their negative attitude toward the GOP remained.
As one person pointed out to me after our conversation, the mood was based less on the policy stands of the Republican Party, less on substance, and more on emotion. What has happened, as best as I can tell, is that the reelection of Barack Obama, as well as Democratic gains in the Senate, had a shattering effect on the confidence many Republicans have in the GOP. Their view seems to be that if the Republican Party couldn’t defeat a failed president like Obama or make gains in the Senate in a year that should have favored Republicans, it is manifestly inept. The disappointment in Obama’s victory has turned people who were once highly engaged in politics away from it, even now, nine months after the election. Call it a long post-election hangover.
This kind of reaction isn’t unusual for a party that lost a presidential election it expected to win, though my sense is the unhappiness and despair runs deeper among Republicans than in the past. Some of this will fade away with time. The president is off to a very rough start in his second term, after all, and Republicans might be re-energized enough, and Democrats despondent enough, that the GOP makes significant gains in the 2014 mid-term elections. But I came away from my trip with a sense that the Republican Party has very deep problems with its own supporters, many of them based on perception more than reality, and it will require politicians with some fairly impressive political talents to revive the party to a dominant position in American politics. It’s a very long way from that right now.