Following the Republicans’ loss in the 2012 presidential election, a new wave of reformers both outside of and within the GOP is pushing for party renewal. Critics have called on the GOP to rethink not only its messaging, but more importantly its policies and fundamental vision. Political observers and operatives are now asking how the Republican Party can reconcile contemporary conservative positions with the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people.
On July 17, the Management and Leadership Initiative at Brookings hosted a forum on the future of the GOP and the opportunities and challenges the party faces. Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, pioneers of the New Democrat movement and authors of “The Politics of Evasion,” gave introductions and comparing the state of the current GOP to the Democrats of the late 1980s. Afterwards, a panel of leading political analysts asked whether the success of the GOP is a matter of changing policies, changing messages, or changing tactics. The panel also discussed how demographic changes are shrinking the party’s base And what strategies are available to cope with these long-term challenges.
Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston said the Republican party today faces challenges similar to those that Democrats encountered 25 years ago. The party has been weakened by adverse demographic trends, its base has grown more demanding and shifted the party farther from the country’s “center of political gravity,” and its leadership has evaded the fundamental reforms required to take the party in a new direction.
Sean Trende said the Republican party was weakened in the 2012 elections by the dropoff in turnout among working class white voters. He noted that 75% of the American electorate is non-minority white and a conscious strategy aimed at increasing turnout and Republican support among swing state working class whites could contribute to the party’s success in the years ahead.
Alex Castellanos argued that the GOP’s current crisis presents the party with valuable opportunities to generate new, innovative solutions to the country’s most critical issues. Rather than simply criticizing Democratic economic policies, Republican leaders can propose ideas for empowering American workers and helping the economy to grow from the bottom up.
Liz Mair said she rejects the idea that Republicans have to adopt increasingly liberal economic policies in order to attract minority voters. Instead, she argued, the GOP has to commit itself to more targeted and sustained voter engagement techniques, particularly with the Hispanic and African American communities.
Rob Costa noted that as Republican leaders in Congress, particularly Speaker of the House John Boehner, have lost control over the party’s direction, conservative discourse becomes increasingly shaped by grassroots groups rather than by lawmakers on Capitol Hill.