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The Challenge of Rebranding the GOP

The trendlines are bad for Republicans. They're falling behind in the battleground states. Demographic and generational change are making matters worse over time. And outside of the South, they're not even making gains among white voters. That latter point does create room for Republicans to do even better among white voters and win without big gains among Hispanics, at least for now. But conservatives take solace in the possibility of victory through whites on the assumption that it will be easier to improve among whites than Hispanics. In reality, the prescription for a GOP comeback outside of the South will be painful.

But what Republicans should do isn't obvious. On its own, the observation that the GOP is doing worse among non-Southern whites doesn’t obviously lend itself to a solution. We might assume, for instance, that the GOP’s problems in northern Virginia, Columbus, and Denver are related to cultural issues, but do we know how many of those voters could be persuaded by any of the shifts suggested by pundits and analysts? What about middle class communities, like Appleton, Ft. Collins, or Lancaster? We might assume that the GOP’s problem is mainly economic, but probably part cultural as well—but in what proportions? And in the culturally Southern areas where the GOP hopes to improve further, like in western Pennsylvania or central Florida, it is highly unclear how much more the GOP can improve—especially if race was part of Obama’s problem.

And as a historical matter, it’s hard to predict how parties will rebound. Many DLC Democrats didn’t realize that the Democrats would eventually find a new base in the Northeast or California. The “Emerging Democratic Majority” characterizes West Virginia as “lean Democratic.” The fact is that the next Republican coalition will be built on dissatisfaction with Democrats, and we just don’t know who will revolt against the Democrats or when.

In the absence of great data on what the GOP should do, analysts and pundits are mainly resorting to what they do best: assuming that what they want is what the country wants. The more culturally liberal Republicans want the GOP to move left on social issues. The populists think populism would do the trick. The conservatives say they should go to the right. It’s all too predictable.

But there are limits to these targeted approaches. For one, parties can’t just excise parts of their base and win elections, especially when they’re the minority party. Moreover, any realistic solution won’t lead to massive gains: Republicans would still be vulnerable to Democratic attacks on their support for cutting entitlements or lower taxes for the rich, or opposition to abortion, gun control, and probably gay marriage. That limits how much they can gain among any particular group. Democrats also have the ideological flexibility to embrace good ideas and co-opt a strong Republican message, as they have done on energy. The Electoral College also makes it harder for a party to win with narrow, deep gains among any single group, like missing conservative white voters or Hispanics—there just aren’t enough them in the critical states. The GOP has a broad problem across a very diverse set of battleground states, and it will require an equally broad set of remedies.

So the best option is to spread the pain around. Don’t castrate the party, smooth out the many sharp edges of the GOP’s platform and message.  Keep supporting tax cuts and less regulation, but add an agenda and message aimed at the middle and working class. Remain pro-life, but don’t appear opposed to Planned Parenthood or contraceptives, and return to supporting exceptions in instances of rape or the health of the mother, as President Bush did. Stay committed to religion, but don’t reflexively doubt the science of evolution and global warming, or the promise of stem cell research or renewable energy. Oppose gun control, but why force yourself to oppose background checks? Oppose gay marriage if Republicans must, but could Republicans at least support civil unions? On all of these issues, the GOP need not compromise on its core policy objectives, but can’t afford to consistently stake out ground so far from the center. That allows Democrats to cast the party and their core beliefs outside of the mainstream, which has already happened on abortion.

This prescription is informed by Bill Clinton’s revitalization of the Democratic Party in 1992. He was ostensibly a “New Democrat,” even though he was pro-choice, supported higher taxes, a universal health care system, gun control, and expanded rights for gays in the military. Rather than abandon core elements of the Democratic agenda, Clinton softened the edges on unreformed welfare, crime, middle class taxes, and said abortion should be “rare,” even if it should remain legal.

The success of heterodox, but conservative Republicans suggests that this formula would be sufficient. Chris Christie is doing great in 2016 presidential polling, and he’s basically followed the approach listed above—although there’s a case that went further than I would advise on gun control. Similarly, Jon Huntsman earned quite a bit of support among moderates for merely saying that he believes in evolution and gay marriage, despite being very conservative on economic issues. Paradoxically, it seems that the GOP’s extremism will make a rebrand even easier, since a candidate can move to the center and still clearly stand on the right.

But Bill Clinton had the benefit of a relatively moderate Democratic primary electorate with a large conservative contingent in the South and Midwest. That allowed him to “soften the edges” and still win a Democratic primary, despite battling serious attacks on his character. In contrast, Jon Huntsman received 739 votes in Iowa and there are questions about whether a popular governor like Chris Christie could win the nomination.

If someone like Huntsman was way too moderate for GOP primary voters, then the GOP rebrand won’t be easy. That makes it even more important that immigration reform passes. Sometimes, allowing issues to disappear can be just as helpful as rebranding. Clinton benefited from the end of the Cold War, which he obviously had nothing to do with. Getting immigration reform off the table would dovetail well with a better economic message, which should appeal to persuadable Hispanic voters. But many of the same forces that couldn't tolerate "smoothing the edges" seem poised to block immigration reform. And if the GOP can't "smooth out the edges" and won't allow Democrats to take issues off the table, like on background checks or immigration, the consequences for 2016 could be fatal.