April 02, 2015

A while back I wrote a couple of posts in which I expressed pessimism about Republican prospects for winning back the White House in 2016 (here and here). A quick survey of the latest round of media stories on the subject seems to indicate that even conservative pundits and analysts are beginning to see the writing on the wall.

The latest missives from George Will and Karl Rove read like well-coordinated talking points.While folks like David Brooks pretend the GOP is even money to win next year, Will and Rove are clearly trying to do the necessary spade work to separate the party's nominee from its Tea Party wing, the difficulty of which has been well illustrated by the ongoing controversies over “religious liberty” in Indiana and Arkansas. Weighing in on the plight of Indiana Governor Mike Pence the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein concisely sums up the difficulty ahead for the GOP: "From Richard Nixon through Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Republicans escalated most cultural clashes, confident that such collisions would help them dislodge socially-conservative whites from the Democrats. Those voters anchored the Republican dominance of the White House from 1968 through 1992. But while those traditionalist voters still underpin the GOP's congressional strength, as the country has grown more diverse and culturally tolerant, they no longer represent a winning presidential race coalition."

The one-two punch of Ted Cruz’s entry into the presidential race and the "religious liberty" debacle in Indiana has made clear that the social conservatives who helped Republicans capture both houses of Congress are not willing to sit quietly by and allow the GOP establishment to moderate the party's message for the 2016 election. If the Ted Cruz wing of the party insists on being front and center in 2016 there is simply no route to the Oval Office for the GOP. The efforts of establishment Republican boosters like Rove and Will are looking increasingly futile.

The plan to push the party to the center in time for 2016 was never very reasonable, a point unintentionally illustrated in a recently published book about how the GOP can recapture the White House “in 2016 and beyond” by Republican strategist Whit Ayers. According to the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, Ayers is a serious guy who understands that changing demographics spell long term doom for the presidential hopes of an “unreconstructed” Republican Party. But Ayers’ solution seems to suffer from unrealistic expectations about the power of “transformational” candidates and a misinterpretation of recent history. Ayers writes, “Republicans are one candidate and one election away from resurrection. It is at least as possible for Republicans to turn around this string of losses in 2016 as it was for the Democrats to turn around their string of losses in 1992”(Quoted by Capehart). So, all the GOP needs is a 2016 version of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton and a willingness to use the “third way” approach that allowed the Democrats to marginalize their progressive wing enough to win presidential elections again after 1988. 

Even if Reagan and Clinton really were the magicians this line of thinking implies, no one presently positioned to make a serious run for the GOP nomination fits the description.  More importantly, the Tea Party wing of the 2015 Republican Party is considerably more formidable and influential in the party than the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was in the 1980s and early 90s.  Social conservatives in 2015 have far better organization and access to a lot more resources than their leftwing counterparts did 25 years ago. The Democratic establishment of the late 20th Century had effective control over the funds and fundraising and communications networks and technology necessary to put down an ideological insurgency.  In 2015, Tea Party insurgents have lots of media partners, the latest social media technology, and more than enough access to big money to resist being pushed off the stage of a presidential election. In the post Citizens United world, vanity candidates like Newt Gingrich and extremists like Ted Cruz can hang around in the nomination fight for as long as they want.

The 2015-16 GOP, both as a presidential election party and as a legislative governing party, cannot refuse to dance with the ones who “brung ‘em.” Nor could any candidate, even Ronald Reagan himself, cast a spell so bewitching as to distract swing voters from the fact that electing a Republican president in 2016 would put the party of Ted Cruz in firm control of ALL THREE branches of the federal government.  Pundits and pols suggesting that “email-gate” could be the tipping point, the thing that makes Hillary Clinton “unelectable,” are really kidding themselves. If ever a presidential election might turn on real policy and philosophical differences, the 2016 election might. If ever an election could make Americans see the folly of voting “the candidate, not the party,” the 2016 presidential election could.

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