The GOP's Identity Crisis

Can the Republican Party reinvent itself?

March-April 2014

IN 1958, after the Republican Party suffered a stinging defeat in the midterm elections that compounded the 1954 loss of its briefly held control of Congress, Whittaker Chambers sent a letter to William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, who had founded National Review three years earlier, was trying to create a conservative insurgency. Like many other conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, he revered Chambers for his searing break with Communism and his exposure of Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent, which he chronicled in his memoir Witness. Chambers had warned the youthful Buckley against consorting with the radical Right, arguing that politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy discredited rather than bolstered a fledgling conservative movement. Now Chambers diagnosed the woes of the GOP:

If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in, and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people—why, somebody else will. There will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Then, as now, the GOP faced an identity crisis. Then, as now, ideologues attacked pragmatists. In the late 1950s, the trends seemed clear enough. Though the Democrats went into the 1958 election already controlling Congress, they won a historically unprecedented fifteen seats in the Senate (including two in a special election upon Alaska’s statehood) as well as forty-nine additional seats in the House of Representatives. When the newly elected Eighty-Sixth Congress started its first session in 1959, the Democrats enjoyed a thirty-seat majority in the Senate and a 130-seat majority in the House. Republicans also lost thirteen of twenty-one gubernatorial elections.

At the time, analysts attributed the outcome to several factors, including a recession, intra-Republican divisions and the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik satellite launch, which Democrats used to attack President Dwight Eisenhower. But the GOP’s message also had clearly fallen short. After the election, the political scientist Frank Jonas, an expert on the western states, pointed to the superficiality of Republican candidates’ “glittering generalities” and appeals to “faith and freedom” when voters were more interested in “their stomachs and their pocketbooks.” Rather than “recognizing and meeting issues which arise from the needs and desires of the people,” he wrote, “gimmicks were invented and straw men set up.”

Since then, Chambers’s view has been confirmed again and again. It occurred most immediately and dramatically in Barry Goldwater’s dismal showing in 1964. And it was repeated in congressional elections over the subsequent decades. As MSNBC commentator and former Republican House member Joe Scarborough has recently written in his book The Right Path:

In the early 1950s the Republicans began a gradual but unmistakable shift from being a political institution that was a pragmatic collection of various factions to being an ideological institution that would, when at its very worst, choose nominees in state and national elections who could check every box required to advance an ideological agenda except one: winning.

In fact, a dispirited Republican Party struggled to define an agenda throughout the 1960s and would not win control of the Senate until 1980. Republicans would not prevail in the House until the revolution of 1994. Though Republican Richard Nixon was seen as the biggest loser of the 1958 election—an assessment strengthened by his 1960 defeat, which he discussed at length in his book Six Crises—he absorbed the political lessons of these losses as well as Goldwater’s and won the presidency in 1968. Nevertheless, neither Nixon’s election nor his landslide reelection in 1972 would significantly shape the Democrat-dominated Congress. The GOP’s later success on Capitol Hill took place only after a fresh generation of conservatives had emerged, with a new agenda and message.

ONCE AGAIN, Republicans are energetically debating the reasons underlying the GOP’s recent electoral losses. In the aftermath of what then president George W. Bush memorably described as the party’s 2006 midterm “thumping” in the Senate and the House of Representatives, followed by President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential election victories, the GOP is engaged in a fresh bout of soul searching. Yet even after seven years, not to mention losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, neither leaders nor rank-and-file Republicans have managed to agree on the causes or cures of the party’s troubles, even as a new election looms.

Obama may have handed the GOP a powerful campaign issue in 2014 with Obamacare’s many problems, but party leaders should not allow optimism about 2014 to short-circuit Republicans’ continuing reflection. Obamacare can hardly form the basis of a political strategy beyond this fall. Without corrective action, the Republican Party may face yet another defeat in 2016. Still, there is a clear path that the GOP can follow to regain its former luster.

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