Calbuzz to GOP: How to Make Yourselves Relevant


Two years ago, after watching the California Republican Party implode in the 2010 election — spectacularly in the case of Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor — Calbuzz offered the GOP some unsolicited advice on how to become relevant again.

Not only did the geniuses of the Grand Old Party ignore our sage suggestions in 2012, they doubled down in Mitch (ht David Letterman) Romney’s run for president on precisely the same bonehead strategy and tactics that eMeg used in California. [Image by Shutterstock]

This was particularly perverse in that one of the guys managing Romney’s campaign – Stuart Stevens – had run the governor’s race for eMeg’s Republican rival, Steve Poizner, and thus had seen how suicidal the moves Whitman made in the primary and general elections were.

But what we have just witnessed on the national stage was actually a replay of the drama California watched in 2010, when a putative moderate Republican (and Romney protege)  ran so far to the right in the whites-only, knuckle-dragging primary season that it was impossible to reclaim the middle when the contest shifted to a big, diverse, multi-cultural political landscape of the general election.

There are some etchings you cannot unsketch.

What really happened? The 2012 election was not itself a watershed. Instead, it confirmed and validated the new American electoral majority that had swept Obama into power in 2008. It signaled the triumph of demographics over ideology – the forging of women, gays, racial minorities, young people, urbanites and some sectors of the working class into a united front.

This new united front defended its 2008 victory against an ideological and theocratic onslaught from the Tea Party, Establishment white men, evangelical and Republican loyalists. Cliff Huxtable and his family fought back Ward Cleaver and his people. The forces of modernism and multiculturalism refused to give back what it had taken from the forces of whitewashed nostalgia.

In response, conservatives like Bill O’Reilly bemoan the loss of status of the white male Establishment. As the loathsome Ann Coulter put it:

“Democrats haven’t changed anyone’s mind. They changed the people. More white people voted for Mitt Romney this year than voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Barack Obama lost white voters by 20 points — the widest margin since 1984. But in 1980, whites were 88 percent of the electorate. In 2012, they were 72 percent of the electorate. Not only that, but the non-white electorate is far more Democratic than it was in 1980. If the same country that voted in 1980 had voted in 2012, Romney would have won a bigger landslide than Reagan did.”

They and others on the right argue that those who are calling Republicans  to moderate their views only want to weaken the GOP — to turn red-blooded, God-fearing, penny-pinching Republicans into European-style, atheistic, money-squandering Social Democrats.

But as we noted in our previous memo to the GOP, we don’t want Republicans to become Democrats — we want Republicans to become relevant. Democracy is best served when there is a vigorous contest of ideas and politics. But the Republican Party, as we noted, is so trapped in its Tea Party ideological hall of mirrors, that all voters can see is a grotesque and distorted reflection of a party and its ossified policies.

As long as the Republicans continue their Pavlovian response to the dog whistlers on the right, they will never capture or reflect the impulses of California voters (or U.S. voters broadly), who tend to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

What Is To Be Done? As we said before: Republicans believe in smaller government, lower taxes, reduced regulation, economic growth, individual freedom and law and order, to name a few GOP values.

They should continue to stand and fight for all of those. But they need to build all that into a platform that begins with a realistic growth agenda. Investments in roads, bridges, dams and/or levees, water projects, schools and universities, redevelopment projects, ports – all these things and more – are wholly consistent with their philosophical world view. Their fixation on opposing everything the Democrats propose is hurting them more than it is helping them.

By lashing themselves to the interests of the wealthiest of the wealthy – for example, by fighting to preserve the Bush tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 a year whom they insipidly call “job creators” — Republicans reinforce the notion that they just don’t give a damn about the little guy, whom pollsters refer to as “people like you.”

Just as we advised the California Republicans, it’s time for the national GOP to rethink its general strategy and the specifics of their agenda. Here’s where they should start (borrowing liberally from our previous essay):

1.  Change your position on a “pathway to citizenship.”  Romney’s insistence that undocumented immigrants should “self-deport” basically told immigrants – especially Latinos, but Asians as well – “We’re going to make your lives so miserable, you’ll wish you were somewhere else.”

Is it any wonder that Barack Obama won about 75% of the Latino vote and that Romney did the worst ever for a presidential candidate among what is the fastest growing segment of the population?

As Calbuzz has argued for years (yes, eMeg, we warned you, too), supporting a pathway to citizenship – or at least a pathway to some form of legal status – is non-negotiable for Latinos. Of course the economy and jobs is their No. 1 issue, just like it is for everyone else right now. But Latinos (and increasingly Asians) don’t care what a candidate’s position is on the economy and jobs once they hear that the candidate wants to round up and deport their cousins, neighbors and friends.

Before Latinos can hear your message on jobs, economy, taxes, national security, whatever, they want to know you’re not going to send abuela back to Guadalajara. And that all Latino kids, born or brought here, can finish college and get a job.

Republicans don’t have to give up on the need to secure the borders against illegal immigration. That’s a matter of defending our sovereignty and integrity as a nation. But just as the Republican Party was the Northern standard-bearer for the abolition of slavery in the 1850s and 1860s, so could the GOP become the advocate for citizenship for honest working men and women who have come to the U.S. to make better lives for themselves and their families.

There’s a logical political reason to worry about allowing illegal immigrants a pathway to legal residence – the fear that they’ll swell the ranks of the Democratic Party. And as every schoolchild knows, party ID is the most powerful predictor of an individual’s vote.

But at least you’d have a chance of attracting Latinos. Unless you first change your stance on a pathway to citizenship (or at least legal status), you have a zero percent chance of attracting those voters. Even the noxious Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has begun to figure this out, saying on “Face the Nation” that the “tone and rhetoric” Republicans used in the immigration debate of 2006 and 2007 “has built a wall between the Republican Party and Hispanic community.”

“This is an odd formula for a party to adopt,” said Graham. “The fastest growing demographic in the country, and we’re losing votes every election. It’s one thing to shoot yourself in the foot, just don’t reload the gun. I intend not to reload this gun when it comes to Hispanics. I intend to tear this wall down and pass an immigration reform bill that’s an American solution to an American problem.”

Big labor, pro-choice forces and culturally liberal Democrats who want to keep Latino voters in their corner will not be happy if you make this move. They all understand that  Latino Catholic culture is more conservative than their party line on some family issues. But unless you alter your stand on this threshold issue, Latinos will pay no attention to the cultural concerns many of them share with the GOP.

2. Get on board with green jobs and environmental conservation. By arguing that people must pick either environment or economic development, you’re creating a false choice. And voters know it.

Plenty of Republicans – from the late David Packard to George Schultz – have proved that you can be a rock-ribbed Republican and also in favor of preserving and enhancing the environment. Of course environmentalism has to be balanced against other competing interests – like healthy agriculture, water supplies to cities and reasonable, controlled growth in and around urban areas.

But you have made fighting environmental regulation a cause. Your political calculation is that the business forces in your camp cannot tolerate stepped-up regulation and enforcement. But that’s old-school thinking. Only retrograde – and politically poisonous – corporations are afraid of the New Environmental World Order.

Republicans – especially Romney himself – looked ridiculous having fought against federal disaster aid after Tropical Storm Sandy washed ashore the Eastern Seaboard and drove Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York into the arms of Barack Obama and the federal safety net.

Romney’s assertion that Obama wanted to keep the oceans from rising looked especially foolish. Climate change is a matter of science, not ideology. You look like you’re just stupid and intransigent in your denial.  You should make this part of some sort of 21st Century capitalism project, or something. Don’t let old school enviros control this vote-rich sector.

3.  Recalibrate your stance on abortion, contraception and family planning.  You can and you must move to the center on these questions so that you support a woman’s right to choose in line with Roe v Wade without endorsing or even supporting abortion.

Yes, your hard-right, anti-abortion wing will scream bloody murder. So don’t give up your commitment to the idea that abortion is a moral choice. But recognize that it’s a moral choice that individuals have to make – not one that can be legislatively controlled.

You can be in favor of life and in favor of reducing the number of abortions. Go back and read Mario Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech from 1984. Be for, not against, family planning, like Barry Goldwater was. In a sense, become libertarian on the issue. You may lose support from the most ardent anti-choice groups, but you can neutralize the power of the issue by emphasizing adoption, widespread use of contraception and healthy sexual practices.

Your goal should be to build a coalition based on the overarching goal of reducing the number of abortions, but without all the wasted breath on abstinence and all the hysterical opposition to teen sex education.

You simply must prevent hard-right positions on abortion, contraception and family planning from becoming litmus tests in Republican primaries. Once candidates seeking to win in the primaries have embraced Neanderthal views on these issues, women will never believe they are not cave people. Take the crazy-pants “protection of the unborn” language out of your party platform. As long as it’s there, your candidates will be hobbled.

4. Sound sensible, not strident. The problem with the tea party rhetoric that some of you find so attractive is that it sounds like the ravings of a crazy old uncle who really ought to be locked in the attic.

The vast majority of voters are moderate, independent-minded, pragmatic people. They don’t much care if an idea comes from a Democrat or a Republican. They just want it to make sense.

They’re not against government; they just want government to work on their behalf. They’re not opposed to all taxes; they’re opposed to taxes that seem unfair, onerous or overly broad. They want to control the borders but they also want to be fair to people who have worked hard to make a living, no matter where they come from.

They’re not pro-abortion but they want women and their doctors — not legislators and judges — to make choices about the life and death of fetuses. Voters are tired of people running for office who sound like they think they know everything and whose answers are purely ideological.

Your financial backers will suffer little from tax policies that make the very rich pay a bit more in taxes. Trying to turn popular social safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security into voucher programs is a dead-end. Fight against profligate spending by the Democrats. Don’t let their union bosses have the upper hand on every issue. Demand accountability and programmatic testing. Be vigilant guardians of the federal treasury.

You need to have a hard head. But you also need to demonstrate a soft heart.

5. Govern like you mean it. Compromise is not capitulation. Great Republicans like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan understood the art of compromise in order to accomplish a greater goal.

You have allowed litmus testers like the Grover of Norquist and Rushbow Limberger to throw too much of their weight around. When the Republican candidates all said they wouldn’t take $10 in cuts if it meant they’d have to accept $1 in new taxes, it was a clear sign that you’ve been taken hostage by nutballs who have no clue about governing and no genuine desire to manage the affairs of the country.

Don’t just take our word. “To avoid being mired in the quagmire that helped produce Tuesday’s status quo election, [Obama will] need to stimulate the economy, reduce the deficit, reform entitlements and the tax code, and begin to tackle climate change. All will require a somewhat more compliant Republican Party,” writes Marc Ambinder of The Week.

“If they compromise on immigration reform, they’ll take the issue off the table for future elections. If they help put in place a ‘grand bargain’ that begins to reduce the deficit, their candidate in 2016 will not be saddled with the specter of massive discretionary spending cuts and won’t have to propose Draconian entitlement reductions either,” he wrote.

In other words, governing could be politically advantageous for Republicans, in addition to being the right thing to do. Voters might just begin to see the GOP as something other than the Grand Obstructionist Party.

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There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar hclark says:

    I heard about a week before the election Mitt handed out a huge bonus to each of his top campaign guys. I also heard that he spent most of his money on TV commercials on Clearchannel stations wholly owned by Bain Capital. He was also his own chief strategist. The result was he made money on this effort. So, ask the GOPers this, is a ‘really good businessman’ what the country really needs?

  2. avatar smoker1 says:

    Republicans just need to stop hating. California needs a two party system, but if one of those parties is defined by who they are hating recently they deserve to sit in the corner until they can play more nicely.

  3. avatar Hank Plante says:

    This is the best analysis I’ve read about the GOP’s challenges. Unfortunately the party here in California continues to freeze out good people like Tom Campbell, Bruce McPherson and Nathan Fletcher. It’s no wonder statewide registration is now under 30% for the GOP (“Grumpy Old Party”).

  4. avatar Sideline says:

    I have to believe that this is going to take some time–perhaps a very long time. My father was a good Eisenhower Republican who would have been aghast to see this takeover of his Party by the snake-handlers, the high-water-pants-wearing Southern abortion goons, the closeted anti-gay zealots and the chanting illiterati of the “Tea Party.” I suspect the growth in the number of “Independents” is composed largely of refugees from the GOP, who still believe in a mild Federal Government and prudent spending but who have little interest in the Talibanesque social agenda that has overtaken the Party.

    Those who have chosen to continue their Party affiliation with the GOP are more likely to be the kooks and goofs, and they will continue nominating their own kind. Goodbye Jim Brulte, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Tom Bordonaro; farewell Bruce McPherson and, yes, even Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Because all of you were reasonable, the New View holds that you were unacceptably liberal.

    The Party faithful will return one voter at a time, maybe, if the Party will have them. I do think it will take a long, long time.

  5. avatar tonyseton says:

    Let’s note that the Democrats could use some updating, too. They got a lot of wins by default, because the Republicans were so incompetent. I mean, they backed Stark, for goodness sakes. We need true progressives and effective leaders.

  6. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    It’s a real question, however, as to whether the knuckle-draggers will allow the Republican Party to reform itself sufficiently to avoid gradual extinction. If you pay attention to what some in the South and parts of the Midwest are saying, you may have your doubts. To them, facts are irrelevant.

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