The GOP's Identity Crisis

February 25, 2014 Topic: PoliticsDomestic PoliticsPublic Opinion Regions: United States

The GOP's Identity Crisis

Mini Teaser: Can the Republican Party reinvent itself?

by Author(s): Paul J. Saunders

The central lesson of America’s energy sector over the last several years is that government programs to subsidize existing technologies like solar and wind have not delivered on their promises even as a private-sector revolution in oil and gas production has created enormous new economic activity and huge numbers of jobs. The contrast powerfully demonstrates both the critical role of technology in generating growth and jobs and the validity of conservative economic principles. Republicans can and should find a way to combine these two facts to develop a strong energy program.

This will require more than quoting Adam Smith or Ronald Reagan and then standing back to see what happens—it means writing policies to promote genuine energy innovation, with respect to both fossil fuels (which generate enormous benefit and will be with us far longer than some seem to think) and other sources. Many Republicans are tempted by the myth that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, the key technologies of the energy revolution, spontaneously burst out from America’s energy companies like the ancient Greek goddess Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus. As a result, some think, there is no need for government-supported research. This is wrong. In reality, both fracking and horizontal drilling began as federally funded research projects before being combined and commercialized by energy companies.

There is an important role for government here, though it must be precisely defined. Needless to say, a conservative energy agenda should not increase the size of government—and it need not, if Republicans can reallocate resources away from subsidies to existing technologies that can’t compete in the marketplace in favor of research to produce genuinely new ways to generate and transmit energy. When necessary to avoid disruption, the GOP can apply creative approaches like reverse auctions to phase out tax credits or other subsidies over time, asking those who seek U.S. government support to compete in part on the basis of how little federal funding they seek.

The Republican Party’s approach to immigration reform is worse than a missed opportunity; it is a significant political liability. Many in the GOP have taken the first step toward recovery by admitting that the party has a problem, but too often the intra-Republican policy debate on immigration conflates two separate issues—U.S. policy toward illegal immigrants and the Republican Party’s political appeal to America’s expanding population of Hispanic voters—and misunderstands the relationship between them. The GOP’s future electoral prospects depend in no small part on understanding each challenge separately and redefining their connection.

The core misunderstanding is the idea that supporting an immigration-reform bill can fix the GOP’s weak support among Hispanic voters. This is unlikely to prove true for three reasons. First, it is not clear how much credit the Republican Party and individual GOP legislators would receive for supporting an immigration bill, especially because they are unlikely to outdo the Democrats in rhetoric. Second, and more seriously, congressional Republicans appear unlikely to be unified on immigration reform—particularly in the current environment inside the party—and bitter debate is entirely possible. This debate is bound to include precisely the kind of nasty rhetoric that has alienated many Hispanic voters in the past. Third, immigration reform is not in fact the top policy priority for Hispanic voters, who, like other Americans, are more concerned about issues that affect their daily lives. This is regularly demonstrated in polls; for example, a 2012 Gallup survey showed that among Hispanic registered voters, immigration ranked fifth in importance after health care, unemployment, economic growth, and the gap between rich and poor—and only slightly above the federal budget deficit.

This suggests that America’s immigration-reform debate may well be less important to Hispanic voters for its policy consequences than for the GOP attitudes they believe it reveals. Thus, a political strategy to attract Hispanic voters should focus first and foremost on avoiding hostile rhetoric and on repudiating those who continue to use it. This includes Republican politicians who publicly decry Hispanic immigration, which essentially tells Hispanic Americans—twenty-three million eligible voters, and possibly forty million by 2030, accounting for 40 percent of the growth in the electorate—that the GOP doesn’t like them and doesn’t consider them to be true Americans. It’s hard to win votes that way.

After it stops some individuals from repelling potential supporters, the Republican Party should reach out by concentrating on the same concrete, real-life issues that the party needs to address anyway—and doing it in a way that draws a stark contrast between Republicans and Democrats. The GOP can have a clear message: while Democrats approach Hispanic Americans and other minority groups on the basis of their ethnicity and propose collective solutions that make few distinctions among those in diverse circumstances, Republicans care about individuals and are pursuing policies to generate jobs and expand opportunities for real people rather than applying labels so that they can easily check a political box. Republicans themselves must recognize the fundamental fact that appealing to group interests rather than individual interests means ceding the terms of debate to Democrats. Conversely, if Republicans have a policy that appeals to Americans—no hyphenation needed—and avoid offending potential voters in whatever social group, they can do quite well.

From a political perspective, Republicans on Capitol Hill may do best by deferring legislative action on immigration; in the current situation, pursuing a bipartisan bill may actually damage the GOP brand rather than improving it. And waiting need not have damaging political consequences if Republicans take other needed steps to appeal to Hispanic and other voters. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans should consider policies to offer an extra helping hand to recent legal immigrants who need it (whatever their origin) in finding jobs and integrating themselves into American society; this is important both in ensuring that new immigrants do not become long-term recipients of government assistance and in assimilating them. It could also help in demonstrating sympathy to those who follow the rules when they enter the country.

Controversial social issues, and particularly gay marriage, seem likely to remain a problem for the Republican Party. Socially conservative positions appear increasingly to be alienating many younger voters, who see the GOP as not only the party of “no” but also the party of “don’t”—a major factor in the appeal among the young of libertarianism and libertarian candidates inside or outside the Republican Party. The libertarian desire for a combination of less government with social permissiveness is already draining support away from Republicans in general elections. This trend may become worse; Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial election demonstrated the cost starkly, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe prevailed over the state’s socially conservative Republican attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, by only 2.5 percent of the vote even as Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis won 6.6 percent. Cuccinelli’s positions on abortion and other social issues clearly turned off some Republicans. Like McAuliffe’s election, Colorado’s voter-driven legalization of recreational marijuana was made possible by an alignment of libertarians with Democrats against social conservatism. Watch this space.

The answer to this, as many have argued, is for Republican Party leaders to de-emphasize social issues as campaign issues—they are too polarizing and may push libertarians and many independents into the Democrats’ arms or into staying home on Election Day. By 2011, two-thirds of Americans under thirty-five supported gay marriage, a share that has grown significantly over the last decade and continues to rise. Perhaps most significant, policy on social issues tends to follow public opinion rather than the reverse—suggesting that social-conservative activists should work harder to shape opinion and strengthen the values they care about from the bottom up rather than looking for rule-based answers that may not last beyond the next election, referendum or judicial appointment and contradict the Republican Party’s overall limited-government philosophy.

IT WILL be very difficult to define a new agenda for the Republican Party that can simultaneously unify a divided party and appeal to new voters in the wider electorate, but some of the ideas above could be components in such an effort. Of course, this agenda must include other key areas as well, starting with a jobs plan that goes beyond tax policy—an issue that despite its great importance has fueled considerable cynicism. There may also be opportunities in education policy, particularly in vocational education; two-thirds of Americans between twenty-five and twenty-nine do not have a college degree and many are unemployed. Finally, Republicans must build a foreign policy that establishes a clear strategic framework, sets priorities and advances U.S. national interests without relying excessively on military force.

Republican political leaders must redefine the party as a home for principled but pragmatic problem solvers rather than ideologues. In a left-leaning echo of Whittaker Chambers, former Democratic Leadership Council policy director Will Marshall argued that in the 1980s, “voters had heard what Democrats were selling. They just weren’t buying.” The DLC’s new ideas and practical approaches helped propel Bill Clinton to the presidency and set the stage for much of what followed. No less important—as Clinton’s case demonstrates—the Republican Party will need a presidential candidate who can personify and persuasively articulate its message.

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