With Barack Obama’s successful bid for a second term, the conventional wisdom is the Republican Party is dead. Don’t believe it. Such obituaries for political parties have been written many times before — in 1972 after Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern; in 1980 when Ronald Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter; in 1988 when George H.W. Bush routed Michael Dukakis; in 1992 with Bill Clinton’s win over Bush — and they’ve all turned out to be untrue. So too this time around. For one, the magnitude of the 2012 GOP loss is just not that great, a matter of small, correctable things and not a wholesale rejection of its small government message. For another, party members are chastened. You may not agree with them, but they’re not stupid — and they’ll fix what went wrong. Resurrection is near.
Not in the Bay State, however. Massachusetts, as commentator Jon Keller has observed, is “the bluest state,” and we showed that to a fare-thee-well this time around. Seriously: If scandal-plagued Representative John Tierney can’t be beaten by a gay, moderate Republican, then the GOP’s hopes of resurgence in the Commonwealth are about as likely as David Petraeus being named “Husband of the Year.” Sure, we might well elect a Republican governor in two years. But the state GOP will continue to operate on the margins.
The national party has a better chance. Granted, the results of the Electoral College (332 to 206) look like a landslide, but the popular vote was 50.7 percent to 47.6 percent, a margin of just 3.8 million votes. In context, it’s a small number, easily moved.
To begin with, of course, candidate Mitt Romney unnecessarily lost votes with a series of boneheaded remarks — the 47 percent crack, insisting he’d de-fund Planned Parenthood, insulting the British handling of the Olympics. He was also a flawed nominee, plagued with a deficit of charisma, shifting positions, and a hard-to-explain business background. Moreover, the Republican primary process itself was an extraordinary exercise in self-flagellation. The candidates all went overboard in kowtowing to the right while also brutally attacking Romney — knowing he would eventually be their nominee.
So here’s what the party will quickly figure out: To win, it has to attract independents (proof of that was Romney’s numbers climbing when, at the first debate, he finally did the long-awaited pivot toward the center). That means bringing back the 11th Commandment, most famously voiced by Ronald Reagan (“Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”). It means avoiding boneheaded statements that disaffect voters you’ll eventually have to attract. And it means nominating someone who connects with regular folks.
Then, too, demographics matter. In 2012, according to exit polls, 93 percent of roughly 16.3 million black voters favored Obama. If that number dropped back to, say, 80 percent (more in line with historic norms), the difference alone would account for about 2 million votes. The same analysis applies in varying ways to other groups defined along lines of sex, ethnicity, or age. Move the numbers a little bit and the results can be profound.
Doing so, however, will require that Republicans stop their unnecessary alienation of young people, Hispanics, and women (because of anti-gay rhetoric, obdurate immigration stances, and anti-feminist rants). At an Aspen Institute/Atlantic magazine “Ideas Forum” held in Washington just after the election, senior GOP members such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were tripping over themselves to make clear they got this. Whether that can happen quickly is unknown — the party’s hard-right wing will surely resist — but it has to happen eventually. Political parties are about winning, not ideology. If the ideology thwarts victory, then inevitably the ideology will change.
And finally, consider this. The two frontrunners for the Democratic nomination in 2016 are Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, who in four years will be 74 and 69 respectively. On the GOP side, possible nominees include folks such as Bobby Jindal (45 in 2016), Kelly Ayotte (48), and Marco Rubio (45) — a younger generation that looks and sounds much different from the old white men who now dominate the party. It’ll be the GOP, not the Democrats, that more looks to be the face of change.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.