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Conservative conundrum

Michael KniggeNovember 20, 2012

After two consecutive defeats in presidential polls logic might tell the Republican Party to engage in some serious soul-searching followed by a shift to the political center. But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Republican vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Image: dapd

Many of us know the dilemma: We should really lose some weight, but that piece of cake just looks too good. We should really quit smoking this time around, but only after finishing this last pack. We should really do our tax returns before the extension expires tonight, but first we have to watch the end of the rental movie that's due tomorrow.

If you can relate to these or similar predicaments then you know what the Republican Party is going through at the moment after two stinging losses in the last presidential elections. It's painful to admit failure and it's even more difficult to change one's behavior.

White vote alone won't work

This might explain Mitt Romney's post-election remark about how Barack Obama won because he handed out "gifts" to key Democratic constituents. The fact is that Obama carried all but one of the major voter segments - women, Hispanics, African-American, young people, Catholics. The only key constituency that went for Romney was whites, which wasn't enough to win him the 2012 election and due to its declining share of the US electorate is unlikely to be enough to ever win a presidential poll again.

To be sure, Romney's recent remark which echoes his infamous earlier statement that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the government and will thus vote for Obama no matter what has been rebuffed by some prominent Republicans who argue that their party must appeal to all Americans instead of insulting them. Still, Romney's remarks are indicative of the political philosophy of large swaths of elected Republican office holders that have swept into Congress by what has been called the Tea Party revolution since 2008.

Delegates hold up Mitt Romeny placards as Romney is nominated for the Office of the President of the United Statesduring the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. (Foto:Lynne Sladky/AP/dapd; eingestellt von rb)
The Republican base is overwhelmingly whiteImage: dapd

Demographic and political problems

This movement - exemplified by politicians like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and of course Romney's running mate Paul Ryan and fueled by an increasingly ideological media and think tank ecosphere - drove the Republican Party further to the right on major issues like immigration, taxes, education, health care and government spending.

And equally important, it prohibited and punished any ideological transgressions and attempts to compromise with Democrats. The result is a party whose core constituency consists of older white men - and which is highly unattractive to emerging voter segments like Hispanics, African-Americans, Catholics and young people.

"The Republican Party faces a political issue and a demographic question," notes Georg Schild, professor of North-American history at Tübingen University. Politically, they have to decide "whether they should pursue a radical anti-welfare state, anti-Obama policy." Demographically, Schild adds, the Republican Party does not appeal to women and minorities, particularly Hispanics.

And he makes a dire prediction for the future of the GOP. "If Republicans do not appeal to the Latinos then the Republican Party will go under. It will be the permanent minority party."

Declining share of white voters

That may be hard to fathom after an election that the Democratic incumbent president won by just 51 to 48 percent of the popular vote and in which Republicans held the House of Representatives. But the trajectory is clear: In 2012 white voters still made up 72 percent of the electorate. That number has been and will go down with every election every two years. By the middle of this century white Americans will make up less than half of the US populace.

Those trend lines coupled with the overwhelming majority that Obama won among minorities should give Republicans pause and make them rethink their political agenda.

Republican presidential candidates from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman arrive for a Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
The Republican primary was a race to the rightImage: AP

Not necessarily, says Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and author of last year's "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism":

"It's hard because their conservative base is very locked in and very determined that they not move and they have got big money funders who want their low tax rates at all costs. So I think they'll move first on immigration issues, but I am not sure how far they will able to do that given that nativism is a top concern for the grass roots Tea Party base."

Exodus of moderates

What's more, practically all moderates in the Republican Party which could have credibly represented and lead a tack to the political center have been shunned in the wake of the party's shift to the right over the past decade. Some of the last remnants of the traditional Grand Old Party (GOP) will leave office early next year: Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana and Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine.

For the current class of Republican office holders in Congress - many of whom have been socialized with and elected on ultra-conservative platforms - it will be almost impossible to move to the middle.

"We need a new generation of Republican leaders," argues Schild. "And I don't really see them."

New face, old policy

"I expect the first thing that the Republicans will do is get some Hispanic faces to run, but with not a huge change in their principles," suggests Skocpol mentioning Marco Rubio, the Tea Party Republican wunderkind from Florida.

epa03376387 US Senator from Florida Marco Rubio delivers remarks during the fourth session of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, USA, 30 August 2012. Mitt Romney is expected to accept the nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. EPA/SHAWN THEW
Many Republicans hope Marco Rubio will appeal to HispanicsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

How can that work?

"It probably won't," says Skocpol. "Parties often don't back off from extremism until they have failed several times."

That doesn't mean necessarily that what authors John Judis and Ruy Teixeira famously labeled the "emerging Democratic majority" a decade ago will now finally come to fruition. What it might mean though, is that just like we might only get serious about losing weight, quitting smoking or doing our tax returns on time after our pants bust, our lungs hurt or we have to pay a massive fine, it might take another blistering defeat in 2016 until Republicans really become serious about changing their political course.