By now, it’s no secret that many Republicans, including advisers in the Romney campaign,were shell shocked last Tuesday night.
Who can blame them? After all, Barack Obama won decisively, Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate, and gained seats in the House.
Politics for both parties, however, can be unpredictable. President Obama came to office in a historic election that brought a tidal wave of Democrats to Congress in 2009, only to receive a drubbing in the 2010 midterm elections.
Less important than fixating on what went wrong and, more crucial for the GOP’s long term national strategy, is determining how to proceed. Gridlock, obstruction, and extremism haven’t propelled them forward from their 2010 victories, they have instead weakened the party as a whole.
Even the leader of the conservative intellectual class, BIll Kristol, has called for charting a new course that includes compromise with the President.
Republicans need only refer to history and take a lesson from the Democrats on how defeat can force a party reassessment that builds a stronger brand and provides a competitive national alternative.
In 1988, the Democrats suffered their third consecutive defeat for the White House after Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis’s loss to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Democrats were a party in the wilderness, searching for answers and a path forward that could connect their values with those of middle class America.
The leftward turn the Democratic Party took in the 1960s and 1970s was not attracting the electorate to its presidential candidates. Even with a progressive economic message, Democratic candidates failed to win because they lacked credibility on issues of national security and social values.
In their 1989 blueprint for the Democrats new undertaking, The Politics of Evasion, political scientists and Democratic Party operatives William Galston and Elaine Kamarck said “the leadership of the Democratic Party has proven unable to shake the images formed by its liberal fundamentalist wing and has been prone to take the rhetoric of the primaries into the general election, with the predictable negative results.”
“The Republican Party was transformed into a governing party during the 1970s because it was willing to endure a frank internal debate on political fundamentals,” Galston and Kamarck said. “If Democrats hope to turn around their fortunes in the 1990s, they must set aside the politics of evasion and embark upon a comparable course.”
The 1980’s saw a divided Democratic Party whose working class and union voters supported Ronald Reagan over their crowned populist crusaders because they viewed the Democrats as unsympathetic towards their overall interests.
“The inescapable fact is that the national Democratic Party is losing touch with the middle class, without whose solid support it cannot hope to rebuild a presidential majority,” said Galston and Kamarck.
The faces of liberalism, McGovern, McCarthy, Mondale and Dukakis, led a losing strategy that would be replaced with centrist newcomers who believed the Democratic Party needed more than merely champions of economic populism but a diverse value structure, if it was to win a national election again.
A frustrated Al From, Chair of the center-left Democratic Leadership Council, claimed “we’re the party of teachers,” after the Dukakis defeat, “we should be the party of education.”
New coalitions would be created to address the personal and economic concerns of a much broader electorate—the all-important political “center.”
Moderate southern progressives like Lawton Chiles in Florida, Jim Hunt in North Carolina, Bruce Babbitt in Arizona, Bill Clinton in Arkansas, Chuck Robb in Virginia, Tim Wirth in Colorado, and Al Gore in Tennessee, were the new and growing faces of a more moderate Democratic Party.
Governor Clinton (D-AR) and his Republican colleague from the National Governors Association Governor Tom Kean (R-NJ) teamed up in 1989 to adopt a proposal on a tax credit (or voucher) that would go to poor people in need of daycare. It won the support of all 50 governors in the NGA. The bi-partisan proposal that was borne out of two different ideological governing philosophies created a new pathway to policy solutions going forward—a third way.
The growing network of moderates or “New Democrats” were working to construct a Democratic majority with progressive but pragmatic ideals that were at the heart of it.
The thinkers of the Democratic establishment went to work, and when Galston and Kamarck laid out their blueprint in 1989 they offered two choices moving forward.
“The Democratic Party must choose between two basic strategies. The first is to hunker down, change nothing, and wait for some catastrophe deep recession, failed war, or a breach of the Constitution – to deliver victory. The other strategy, active rather than passive, is to address the party’s weaknesses directly. Thus the next nominee must be fully credible as commander-in-chief of our armed forces and as the prime steward of our foreign policy; he must squarely reflect the moral sentiments of average Americans; and he must offer a progressive economic message, based on the values of upward mobility and individual effort, that can unite the interests of those already in the middle class with those struggling to get there. Finally, he must recast the basic commitments of the Democratic Party in themes and programs that can bring support from a sustainable majority.”
Can the Republicans conduct a meaningful reexamination process that extends an olive branch towards a pathway to inclusivity in their party?
Will they reevaluate their principles, beliefs, strategy, message and consider amending their platform to make a legitimate play for the center?
It’s too early to tell how, or if, the GOP will evolve. We’ve seen little evidence to date that they intend to moderate. But, in the wake of Tuesday’s resounding repudiation, we’ve seen some of the party’s grown-ups advocate for thoughtful intra-party analysis and reflection. Even that strategy is being rebuffed by its most provocative activist allies on cable and radio. In other words, the soul-searching is still underway.