GOP: Blame message not the messenger

By Bill Schneider
November 26, 2012

Here’s what’s supposed to be happening:  After losing two presidential elections, Republicans are supposed to be re-evaluating what their party stands for.  Are they out of line with mainstream America?  Does the party need to change?

The answer is yes.  So the party moves to the center and searches for candidates with broader appeal.  Republicans don’t need another spectacle like the 2012 primaries, where the contenders ran the gamut from a panderer to the right (Mitt Romney) to the far right (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum) to the extreme right (Representative Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry) to the lunatic fringe (Herman Cain, Representative Ron Paul).

There was one moderate in 2012 — Jon Huntsman.  Huntsman didn’t make it past New Hampshire, where he came in first among the tiny number of Democrats who voted in the Republican primary.

After conservative Senator Barry M. Goldwater lost in 1964, Republicans turned to Richard M. Nixon.  Nixon had been defeated for president in 1960 and then for governor of California in 1962.  He was politically dead — dead as Jacob Marley.  But Republicans resurrected Nixon and dusted off his centrist credentials. Nixon won.

After liberal Senator George McGovern lost in 1972, Democrats turned to Jimmy Carter, a moderate Southern governor who had nominated Scoop Jackson for president at the 1972 Democratic convention.  Carter won.  In 1992, after three losses in a row, Democrats came up with another moderate Southern governor, Bill Clinton, who had been chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.  Clinton won.

Call it the centrist imperative.  It’s supposed to be happening to Republicans now.  But it’s not.  Instead, Republicans are blaming everything for their loss except what they stand for.  Romney believes he lost because President Barack Obama handed out “gifts” to minorities.

Most Republicans believe they lost because they had a bad candidate.  Epically bad.  The worst since, well, the last two candidates from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis and Senator John Kerry.  They believe Romney got smeared by Democrats and didn’t fight back.  As conservative activist Grover Norquist put it, “The president won a mandate not to be Romney for the next four years because Romney gives people cancer and is a bad person and is mean to dogs.”

Some Republicans are simply in denial.  “I don’t think for a second Republicans ought to change what we believe and what we stand for,” the former executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party told The New York Times.  “I do think we could do a more effective job of communicating that.”

It’s a popular theme among Republicans.  There’s nothing wrong with their message.  There’s something wrong with their messaging.

And their messenger.  Conservatives have abandoned Romney as a shape-shifter who was never really one of them.  “What we got was a weak moderate candidate handpicked by the Beltway elites and country club establishment wing of the Republican Party,” the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots told a news conference.

Why don’t Republicans get it?  Because they are actually one stage beyond the centrist imperative.  The next stage is the centrist collapse.

The polarization of our politics has its roots in the centrist collapse.  Republicans saw the center collapse under Nixon and Gerald Ford.  Nixon was a “Great Society Republican” who started affirmative action and environmental protection programs.  Conservatives hated the Nixon-Ford-Henry Kissinger foreign policy of detente with communism.  The failure of Nixon and Ford drove Republicans to the right and into the arms of Ronald Reagan, who led Republicans to three victories in a row.

Similarly, Democrats saw the center collapse under Carter.  After Carter’s failure, Democrats began moving to the left.  Like the Goldwater forces in the Republican Party, the McGovern forces lost the election and ultimately took over the party.

A lot of Republicans regard George W. Bush as a failed centrist.  Conservatives call Bush a “big government Republican” because he allowed increases in spending and deficits (for two wars, a new entitlement program and a government bailout).  After Bush and Senator John McCain and Romney, conservatives are saying, “Enough moderation.”

They believe voters are hungering for the real thing.  Conservatives have taken refuge in the South, where Republicans enjoy total domination.  In Bibb County, Alabama, a dead Republican defeated a living Democrat for county commissioner.

The big shock to Republicans was not just that Romney lost.  It was also that they failed to make gains in the Senate, which they had counted on taking over.  The party threw away likely Senate victories in Missouri and Indiana this year by nominating extreme candidates.  Just like they did in 2010 in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado.

The fact is, the Republican message could not be any clearer.  Voters know what the party stands for.  That’s the problem.

Republicans first step is to learn two basic things.  One is not to stigmatize people like immigrants and gays and single mothers.  The other is not to threaten to shred the safety net.

That’s not centrism.  That’s common sensism.

PHOTO (TOP): Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney delivers his concession speech in Boston MassachusettS, November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

PHOTO INSERT 1: Barry M. Goldwater  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

PHOTO INSERT 2: President George W. Bush  REUTERS/Larry Downing

15 comments

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My hope is that the Republicans continue to lick their wounds and keep Michele Bachman and her ilk in the forefront of their movement. With a little effort and time more seriously progressive members will slowly gain power in the Dem’s caucas and move the party into the 21st century, thus insuring the Republican’s defeat in election after election. Maybe Empire America can turn away from “empire” into its promise as a true world leader for democracy instead of its place as an increasingly fascistic corporatocracy. Power to the non-wealthy people, right on!

Posted by hapibeli | Report as abusive

Choosing heads or tails really doesn’t matter when they’re on the same coin. Those who think Democrats and Republicans are opposed to each other are diluted. Give either side complete control of the House, Senate and Presidency and see what gets repealed. Nothing. As history well proves. Authority marches on in the name of societies God, the Government.

Saying that people are free and limiting the vote to two parties, or forcing involuntary servitude on those who don’t vote, is no different than telling a slave that he is a free man as long as he votes for this or that master every 4 years. The ability to choose your master doesn’t make you any less of a slave.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

I would prefer if Republicans never change- that way they can remain out of power forever, and we can be spared their extremist hate and exclusion.

Posted by Caspary | Report as abusive

A awful lot is being made out of an incumbent president winning an election with 50.66% of the vote – hardly a reason to abandon conservatism – if the 1964 blowout was not a reason to do so, the 2012 election certainly is not. There were countless columns, and books, like this after 1964 – that, believe it or not, urged all Republicans to become Jacob Javits. There is a valid point here, however – the social issues are dead. One may believe, for example, that abortion is immoral, but those beliefs will not be enshrined in law – and those who hold strong moral views on that and other subjects are left to moral suasion. The media, entertainment industry and academic campaigns on those subjects have been so overwhelming, and effective, that national campaigns are no longer the place for the issues – which in any event have largely been taken over by the judiciary.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

“Here’s what’s supposed to be happening: After losing two presidential elections, Republicans are supposed to be re-evaluating what their party stands for. Are they out of line with mainstream America? Does the party need to change?”

The Republican party needs to change only if the function of a political party is to represent mainstream America, as opposed to representing a group of voters who are active within the party. The Republican parties does not need to change if the role of the Republican party is to act an an organization to advance the partisan positions of a group of people with whom the majority of Americans do not agree.

That may seem like a strange point, but a “party” is, by definition, a faction and not a microcosm of the entire electorate. Parties are partisan. And the Democratic party is no more a microcosm of the entire electorate than the Republic party is. It’s just that, at present, the Democratic party is perceived by the average American as less distasteful than the Republican party.

There is, of course, not a single mention of political parties in the Constitution. Political parties have the importance that they have because state and Federal legislatures long ago enacted statutes to favor candidates who are affiliated with political parties over candidates who are not affiliated. Because all three branches of government are populated with people selected on the basis of partisanship, it is unlikely that the question of whether any serious scrutiny will be given to the question of whether the two-party system is, per se, an affront to the Constitution.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

There are more than one reason for the two main parties to exist. The first being as a vehicle for advancing individual political careers. When looking at this reason for the Republican parties existence, it would seem clear that the party must move to the center and of course there are a some Republicans saying things to this effect. Another and maybe even more important reason for the two parties to exist is to advance the interests of the corporate elite. Both parties do a pretty good job of this but the Republicans have had a special role to constantly drag the whole field of political discussion rightwards. They have been pretty successful at this over the last couple decades and even if the strategy brings in diminishing returns I expect it to continue because it is so beneficial for the elites.

Posted by scottabc | Report as abusive

The GOP will have to ditch the Klan sooner rather than later. Us democrats went through this 50 years ago when Kennedy, a Northern liberal, embarked on civil rights reforms and integration nationwide. The south abandoned the Democratic party and by 1980 was voting solidly republican. It hurts to lose that many voters in one block. In fact, the only thing that hurts more than losing the confederacy is keeping them around. But in the long run, it’s the best medicine.

America is changing continually, GOP. Lose the Klan or keep losing elections.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I have a friend who put it pretty clearly. The Republican economic program works against the financial self-interest of most voters. Income distribution IS becoming less equal, economic mobility over one’s lifetime or even for the next generation IS diminishing. Therefore, the Republican economic program of less progressive taxation and fewer entitlements has to be associated with appeals to non-economic concerns, such as abortion, gun control, gay marriage, family values, and the like.

But more and more of the population is urban. They are not a part of a classic nuclear family, they know (or are)women who have needed abortions, they know (and like) some gay persons from work or elsewhere, they don’t own a gun.

The Republicans have to augment their non-urban base with some new segment of the population, and they have to find a segment that will not be put off by the non-economic Republican viewpoints, which are what hold non-urban voters to Republican candidates.

It sounds kind of hard. But I don’t sell them short, and I don’t doubt that they will find a promising avenue. Historically, it has tended to work that way.

Posted by benfct | Report as abusive

This was an excellent analysis, relying on facts and history instead of beliefs and feelings. To me, reliance on beliefs, regardless of their basis in facts, is the hallmark of today’s GOP, and their biggest downfall.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

I had a conversation last week with a bunch of my fellow educated 30-39 middle class friends. Every one of us was in complete agreement: we can’t wait to vote in the future wave of fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidates, which ever party they end up finding a home in. This is the combination of views the our generation is demanding; the bizarre pairing of fiscal and social conservatism makes no sense and needs to go.

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive

@AlkalineState:

One comment is that what Kennedy knew how to do was to talk the civil rights talk. When it came to the walk, that was accomplished by Lyndon Johnson, who came from a poor background in Texas and who, as vice president, was derided by the people in the Kennedy White House as “Rufus Cornpone.”

Sammy Davis, Jr. worked tireless campaigning for Kennedy in 1960 and doing everything that he could to get African American voters to the polling places for the 1960 election, which Kennedy narrowly won. Immediately before the inauguration, Davis experienced the dissing of the 20th century when Kennedy’s assistance told Davis that he was not being invited to any inaugural events because, in that era of segregation, they did not want to offend the sensibilities of Southern Democrats. It was not long afterward that Davis changed his party affiliation to Republican.

Lyndon Johnson was not treated with much more respect than Sammy Davis, Jr., even though Johnson was probably the most experienced and gifted Washington insider of the 20th Century. Johnson had served in both the House and the Senate before becoming Vice President, and he was Senate Majority Leader. When he became President, he decided that his legacy would be the civil rights legislation (for which Kennedy is typically given credit). As the most experienced Capitol Hill politician on the planet at that time in history, Johnson was probably the only person who could have made that legislation pass. And he did so, even though fellow Southern Democrats told him they would leave the party if he succeeded. Perhaps, Johnson, who said he attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College because it was “the poor boys’ school” for kids whose families could not afford the University of Texas, had experienced enough slights from the higher strata of Southern society that he enjoyed throwing a monkey wrench in their system. But, whatever the reason, Johnson decided that he was happy to shove the civil rights legislation down the throats of his fellow Southern Democrats. As a result, they, like Davis, went over to the Republican party.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Actually, the similarities between southern democrats and the wealthy business and industry owners of the north that support republicans is significant. Both believe that other people are a resource for them to use for their own enrichment. Also, the non-economic issues are not things the true leaders really believe in, they just use them to manipulate the religiously prepared flock. I mean really, does anyone really believe that Dick Cheney believes in God. They both believe that the ends justify the means and are willing to take whatever action is necessary to gain control, and thus wealth. So really, the southern racists belong in the republican party.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

They protect the 1 percent……

Posted by Beobachter | Report as abusive

The neo-GNOP cannot change the message because the message IS the neo-GNOP.

Huntsman could not have Saved the neo-GNOP for while he would have pulled lots of Indies and some Dems, he would have lost an equal number of lunatic fringe.

Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy” doomed the old GOP to being a Party of haters, money-worshipers, backward thinkers, whacks and Confederates.

What the neo-GNOP’s received as the ROI for their expenditure of about $1B on the Election was about 10 points in the Presidential. That is the highwater mark of the neo-GNOP.

Posted by Whittier5 | Report as abusive

An excellent set of comments – well worth reading. Thank you Reuters readers.

@ brotherkenny4: I agree mostly agree with you. I would like to address your question: “I mean really, does anyone really believe that Dick Cheney believes in God?” I really don’t know about Dick Cheney personally. However, as for him and others of his ilk, some are just putting on political show but others often believe fervently in their own particular notion of God. We have all been told that God made us in his image, but unfortunately many turn that completely backwards. They create their notion of God that reflects their imperfections perfectly, and that is what they believe in.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive