Parties end, often enough with a hangover. The question for today’s Republican Party, now drying out, is whether there is a place for it in a world that is changing too fast for its core constituency.
The answer, of course, is probably. Institutions as venerable as the Republican Party don’t turn to dust easily, but the fact is that they can. Ask any Whig you meet. But while the country functions, and pretty well, within the construct of a two-party system, there is no law that says it has to be these two parties. Parties can end.
When one party becomes incapable of dealing with critical issues and cannot – or, more accurately, will not – take steps to broaden its appeal to a growing minority population, it is willfully placing its relevance at risk. That is the problem for today’s Republican Party, which marches ever farther to the right, shedding any plausible resemblance to the party led by Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower, let alone Abraham Lincoln.
“We’re going the way of the dinosaurs, and quick,” David Johnson, a top Republican strategist in Florida, told the Washington Post. “The meteor’s already hit, and we’re just trying to wonder what the blast zone will look like.”
Today’s Republican Party is a party for radicals and old white men, and that demographic is rapidly shrinking. The country is becoming more diverse, and not only does the GOP show no interest in wooing black or Hispanic or gay voters, it is openly hostile to them. It’s a losing strategy and, to be blunt, a crazy one. Who wants to entrust leadership to those with so little sense?
Consider: When Bill Clinton ran for president, whites accounted for about 87 percent of voters. Four years ago, they comprised just 74 percent and, on Tuesday, only 72 percent. Hispanics, meanwhile, accounted for 10 percent of the electorate this year and they overwhelmingly voted for President Obama.
Why wouldn’t they? The Republican Party’s fatwa on a sensible middle ground on immigration policy is a knife in the gut. But the old white guys, especially the tea party, won’t have anything to do with any kind of amnesty, even though Reagan, the Republican hero, did that very thing.
The same goes for African-Americans, many of whom are conservative. But when Republicans across the country brag about voter ID laws specifically meant to disenfranchise them, why would they ever trust the party with their votes?
Republicans could try, like normal people, to offer black voters something they might value, but instead, they simply try to keep them from voting, a maneuver that sets off historical alarms among African-Americans. Who comes up with these ideas? The old white guys, that’s who. The echoes of Jim Crow are deafening.
Republicans are hostile to gay voters. They have fought tooth and nail against marriage rights, yet voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state endorsed gay marriage in referendums on Tuesday. In Minnesota, home of Rep. Michele Bachmann, voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Bachmann, who ran for the GOP nomination for president this year, barely won re-election to the House on Tuesday.
The party has sold its soul to the tea party, a loose band of zealots who seem to believe it is their manifest destiny to rule the rest of us. They have cowed legislative leaders, who fear – and not unreasonably – that any whiff of compromise will incite the fury of the rabid right. Count Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky among them.
What Republicans need is a Clinton moment. After repeatedly losing elections, Democrats nominated the Arkansas governor, who guided the party back toward the political center. It wasn’t easy, and the party’s left along with Republicans despised him for that, and for other sins. But now Democrats have won four of the last six presidential elections and came within a hairsbreadth of winning a fifth.
The country needs two strong parties. Without that, the governing party will have too easy a time in making reckless decisions. But this is a nation of the center-right, not the far right or the far left. When Republicans reject centrist proposals, such as allowing taxes to rise on the richest Americans in return for significant budget cuts, Americans from the center notice. And those Americans are only going to increase in number as the country’s demographics continue their inexorable evolution.
This is not to say that Republicans can’t win another election. Lightning strikes, sometimes, and elections turn on multiple issues, including the nature of the other party’s candidate. And the Republicans could find a candidate with the personal charisma of a Reagan who could appeal to voters outside the base.
But Republicans are juggling hand grenades with their current policies and their view of the kind of Americans they will admit to their shrinking tent. If they can’t change, maybe another party can arise – one that is interested in serving conservative voters of all stripes while actually solving problems and inhabiting the territory around the nation’s political center. It’s a long shot, but so is the success of the current Republican Party.