IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Learning the wrong lessons

After 2012, GOP leaders agreed the party needed to change. But in 2014, they've once again positioned themselves as the anti-immigrant, anti-contraception party
U.S. President George W. Bush shares a laugh with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crawford, Texas, in this November 15, 2001 file photo.
U.S. President George W. Bush shares a laugh with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crawford, Texas, in this November 15, 2001 file photo.
It's not uncommon to hear Democratic officials complain that Republicans, if given half a chance, would return the country to the failures and disasters of the Bush/Cheney era. In an unexpected twist, the Republican National Committee is helping make the case that Dems are onto something.

The Republican National Committee is celebrating former President George W. Bush's birthday this weekend by selling wistful "I Miss W." t-shirts to its supporters. "President George W. Bush led our nation through some of the most challenging moments of our nation's history -- and we miss him and his leadership," reads a fundraising pitch on the RNC's website. "By sporting this comfortable, classic, American-made tee, you can share our message and help us elect principled conservative leaders to office."

The shirt's available for the low, low price of $27.
The larger point, however, isn't that Republicans miss a Republican president. Rather, the significance of the silly t-shirt is appreciating just how little the GOP has changed in recent years, even after party leaders seemed to decide collectively that changes were necessary. 
In the 2012 race for the White House, for example, which Republicans were confident they'd win, President Obama cruised to a second term, becoming only the sixth president in history to win more than 51% of the popular vote twice. Senate Democrats were rewarded with a majority for the fourth consecutive cycle. House Democratic candidates earned nearly 1.5 million more votes than House Republican candidates.
The defeats were deemed so important that the RNC commissioned an "autopsy" report, which concluded, among other things, that the Republicans' status quo was unsustainable.
But as they once again position themselves as America's anti-immigrant, anti-contraception party, Republicans appear to have reached an important conclusion: the only changes they're comfortable making involve moving even further to the right, away from the mainstream.
John Harwood had a good piece over the weekend on the bigger picture.

It took 24 years for Democrats to end the last period of Republican presidential advantage, in which issues and the makeup of the Electoral College helped Republicans win five of six elections, and to start their own behind Bill Clinton. By 2016, the Democrats' own stretch -- winning the popular vote in five of the last six elections -- will have lasted 24 years. Now, one of the biggest questions in American politics is how close Republicans are to replicating Democrats' process of rejuvenation and winning the White House again.

The parallels are important. From 1968 to 1988, the nation held six presidential elections, of which the Republican won five. From 1992 to 2012, there were another six presidential elections, of which the Democrats won five, at least when it came to earning more votes.
But after Dems lost five out of six, the party changed in rather fundamental ways. Bill Clinton went to great lengths to run as a different kind of Democrat -- a "new" Democrat, by way of the DLC, with a "third way" worldview -- and the party's rank-and-file voters were eager to embrace it. Why? Because they saw the shift as necessary for electoral success.
Now that Republicans have experienced a similar losing streak, is there a comparable appetite for party-wide changes? Not even a little. There literally isn't a major issue on which the GOP has shifted towards the mainstream, despite its 2012 losses. Not one.
The party's "autopsy" said it was time for Republicans to expand their reach beyond their older and whiter base, be more willing to take on private-sector excesses, and "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform." Party officials proceeded to do the exact opposite -- up to and including "We Miss W" t-shirts. Indeed, on issues like birth control, voting rights, immigration, and foreign policy, the GOP is arguably even more right-wing than before.
In the short term, this almost certainly won't matter. Thanks to a combination of structural factors, geographic imbalance, gerrymandered districts, voter-suppression efforts, and the fact that Democrats don't like to show up for midterm elections, Republicans are likely to do quite well in 2014. The party said it needed to change, then decided not to. They party said it would try to govern, then changed its mind. The party said it had to be responsible with power, then shut down the government for no discernible reason. But the party's failures will probably be rewarded by voters anyway in the fall.
The short-term success, however, will mask a more long-term problem, for which the party has no clear solution. Just as important, Republicans seem intent on denying the problem's existence and rejecting any talk of change.