Getting smacked down by voters is supposed to awaken a latent instinct for reform—or at least self-preservation—among politicians. Smarting from a presidential rout, there are Republicans who sense that the GOP must change or wither. There are even a few who privately agree that what they really need is a “Republican Clinton”—although that would be a hard phrase for most of them to utter aloud.
For those who like to win national elections, however, it sounds like a useful concept. During the two decades from Clinton’s arrival in 1992 through 2012, the Democratic Party has won five of six presidential elections, including Al Gore’s stolen victory in 2000, and two midterm elections. From 1972 through 1988, they had lost four out of five by huge landslides—the same sign of looming obsolescence now confronted by the Republicans.
Given their belligerent temperament (and the old wounds opened by such questions), the inevitable debate among Republicans over the party’s direction is likely to become a factional “war,” with establishment types pitted against Tea Party activists and evangelical zealots. But what if they could stop and think calmly? How would a GOP reformer — in the style of the former Democratic president whom so many of them praised during this election cycle — reshape their party?
Setting aside the merits of the various positions that Clinton espoused as both candidate and president, voters came to see him as the symbol of a renewed Democratic Party they could trust (and clearly many still do). What would Republicans have to do to regain the trust they have forfeited since the Reagan era?
As a first step, a Republican Clinton surely would instruct them to face the demographic realities that no American can ignore. This country’s future politics will reflect its changing complexion, no longer dominated by a white majority but reflecting the growing plurality of Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and others.
Repelled by the arrant racism in the Tea Party movement and the evidence of broader nativism in the GOP, these groups become increasingly dedicated to the Democrats with each successive election. If that same habit obtains among their children, the Republicans are truly doomed in this century.
While that warning is already clichéd, it is hardly inaccurate. But a Republican with a Clintonian outlook would say that the party’s problems go much deeper – and that merely revamping the failed GOP approach to Latinos, blacks, and other minorities won’t cut it. Tokenism doesn’t deceive anybody except the tokens.
The effective cure is to rethink, if not abandon, cherished ideological positions — a painful process for many party activists and perhaps unthinkable for those who are telling themselves that Mitt Romney lost because he wasn’t “severely conservative” enough.
Those able to face reality ought to ponder their party’s allergy to math, displayed most ridiculously in this election by the non-arithmetical budget proposals of the Romney/Ryan ticket and the hissy fit over Nate Silver’s New York Times polling analysis. In the same frame they might reconsider the “war on science” they have waged over the past decade or so, ranging from the irresponsible rejection of climate change to the faith-based idiocy of “creationism” to the sexist mythology of “legitimate rape.” Treating the public as stupid and uninformed eventually makes you stupid and uninformed.
There are plenty of stupid and uninformed voters, as the birther controversy demonstrated. But there is another, smarter demographic group whose shunning of the Republicans is ominous for them: the young. Combined with the old racial and ethnic animus, the enduring homophobia, the 1950s perspective on sexuality, abortion, and contraception, the GOP attitude toward science and math simply brands the party as “old and busted,” meaning anti-modern. So does the smug condescension often directed against the working poor and the unemployed—the “47 percent”—which strikes most young people as unwarranted, unrealistic, and ugly.
Once they start doing arithmetic again, the “new Republicans” might even abandon the party’s traditional hostility toward Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – and instead emulate conservative parties abroad by accepting the necessity of a real safety net. They could even make themselves the true guardians of those systems, but they would have to stop encouraging corporate looters to despoil them.
Sadly for the Republicans, their moment for reform from the center may have come and gone — in the person of Romney himself. His Massachusetts health care reform suggested a more magnanimous and inclusive conservatism that could have molded a brighter Republican future. But having so quickly surrendered to the Tea Party, birtherism, voodoo economics, and climate denial, he lacked the character to lead a movement for change in his party. John McCain, once a brave voice for immigration reform and climate realism, was similarly stifled when he ran for president. Both surely know that the GOP’s persistent extremism makes it easier to defeat them in elections and harder to govern a country whose constitutional structure requires compromise.
As Ed Kilgore explains briskly in The New Republic, the conditions for change don’t exist in the Republican Party today. And for the moment, there is no sign of a “Republican Clinton” on the horizon.