It’s a word seldom heard since Karl Rove brandished it after the 2004 election. On the basis of an Electoral College win secured by the precarious margin of one state, an Ohio rife with voter suppression, “Bush’s brain”—is that a compliment to Rove?—proclaimed an era of Republican realignment. It was short-lived, rebuked in 2006 when Democrats recaptured the House and the Senate—and refuted in 2008, when Barack Obama swept to a commanding victory across an expanded range of battleground states. After a last gasp in the 2010 midterms, in a time of acute economic distress, Rove’s fantasy was demolished in 2012, when the GOP waged a backward-looking campaign directed to the American electorate of a decade and more ago—two white, too old, too rural, too Southern.
Instead, the crabbed, plutocratic, intolerant Republican appeal did succeed—in mobilizing the new America, which convincingly voted for a second Obama term. But something more has happened here than the reelection of one president, as consequential as that is. We are witnessing a Rove in reverse—but this time, an authentic and accelerating realignment in the demography, ideology, and political identity of the American mainstream. And while Obama both reflects and reinforces the impetus to realign, the befuddled, hemmed-in GOP seems doomed to decline.
The shift from hardline bravado to postdefeat stress syndrome was signaled when the party reluctantly fled the potential political fallout of a Republican-inflicted economic crisis. Congressional Republicans backed off the fiscal cliff, surrendered the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and raised the debt ceiling rather than crashing financial markets and the full faith and credit of the United States. Paul Ryan has now conceded that the GOP won’t shut down the government to extort their preferred cuts in Social Security and Medicare—which they’re still trying to voucherize.
Following the tactical retreats of a party stubbornly clinging to its reactionary core, the president delivered his second inaugural address. Contrary to predictions that he would offer a collection of forgettable generalities, the speech was one of the great state papers in modern American history, boldly asserting political realignment without explicitly using the phrase. And it set off a great commotion in GOP ranks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bashed its “liberalism”—the reflex epithet Republicans have long deployed as a weapon of instant damnation. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy told Fox’s Sean Hannity that Obama’s words showed “how out of touch he is.” Not since 1936, when FDR called for activist government to redress the shame of “one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” has a second inaugural elicited such partisan vitriol. Across the board, Republicans squealed like stuck elephants.
FDR also spoke then of “a sudden changed civilization.” And in the days before and after Obama invoked “new realities” that demand “collective action,” a cascade of polling has reaffirmed that on issue after issue, mainstream America is with the president. On fundamental questions like the role of government, 61 percent of Americans favor “federal” action to deal with income inequality. In an AP-GfK survey, 80 percent agree that climate change will be “a serious problem ... if nothing is done.”
On social issues, where Republicans are imprisoned in the dogmas of the religious right, the degree of change is profound. Here is a headline from the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll: “Majority for the First Time ... Wants Abortion to Be Legal in All or Most Cases.” According to Gallup, 53 percent support same-sex marriage—and another survey reports a double-digit margin for marriage equality. Americans have joined in the journey from “Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.”
Similarly, the anti-immigrant Tea types and the gun lobby, the masters of the GOP, are a dwindling minority of America. A Fox News survey, skewed conservative in most of its results, found that 66 percent of people favor “allow[ing] illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship.” And Gallup records 91 percent support for universal background checks for gun buyers—and 60 percent for a ban on assault weapons.
A cascade of polling has reaffirmed that on issue after issue, mainstream America is with the president.
None of this means that all of this will happen now or in the immediate future, given an obstructive Republican House that is a one-ring, right-wing circus. But it does point toward the GOP as “a permanent minority,” warns the party’s former national chairman Jim Gilmore. Ominously he adds: “I don’t think the party dies immediately.” It probably doesn’t die ever because of House members in districts purposely drawn to be solidly red—and because the two-party structure is built into the system’s institutional DNA. But if Republicans don’t move toward the mainstream, they will never—or hardly ever—prevail at the presidential level, short of Democrats being discredited by a major scandal or held responsible for an economic or national-security catastrophe. (And no, Lindsey Graham, for all your strident whining, Benghazi doesn’t qualify.)
So what’s the GOP to do? Trapped between the preconditions for electoral success and the excesses of dominant hardliners, Republicans have four apparent paths: disenfranchise the voters, disable the economy, disguise their true character, or disenthrall themselves.
The first of these—purloining the presidency by awarding electoral votes on the basis of gerrymandered congressional districts in targeted purple or even blue states—would have resulted in a 2012 Mitt Romney win of 271-267 in the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote by 5 million votes. The scheme, endorsed by the current Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, was launched in Virginia; it would have given Obama, who carried the state, 4 of its 13 electors, with the other 9 handed to lucky loser Romney.
The plan has now died there—and in other places like Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, despite that they have GOP governors and legislatures. The play was a conspicuous outrage, and some Republicans opposed it on the merits. Others probably rejected it out of fear. For example, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the far-right GOP candidate for governor this year, will have enough trouble with voters in northern Virginia without the added burden of defending a plan that would effectively disempower that region. Governors like John Kasich in Ohio don’t want to face that dissonant music either.
Grand-theft presidency is a notion still barely alive in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And while it’s likely to expire there too, other tactics to disenfranchise, like long lines and onerous ID laws, will return next year and in 2016. They are, however, a double-edged cheat: they anger minorities and the young and motivate them to turn out.
The second path for the GOP—attempting to bring down the economy—is a clear and present possibility. That was the bookend to Paul Ryan’s disavowal of a government shutdown; instead, he said, the Republicans are ready and willing to allow the sequester—draconian, indiscriminate, and automatic cuts in defense and domestic programs that will hit March 1 unless Congress acts. The latest figures on gross domestic product preview the impact of a sequester; in the fourth quarter of last year, the economy “contracted” by one tenth of a percent. What “subtracted ... 2.6 percent from growth” was reduced government spending, along with a slowdown in filling inventories.
Austerity, cutting too deep and too fast, has now brought Britain to the brink of a triple-dip recession. It could happen here—and in 2010, a parlous American economy did give the GOP a robust midterm triumph. Afterward, Republican intransigence on jobs, infrastructure, and other measures for recovery did lead to slower growth, but not to political success in 2012. I believe that by then the tactic was too obvious—and it would be glaring this time around. Republicans have to worry that they would pay the political price.
That’s why Ryan may be shadowboxing on the sequester—as he and other GOP leaders were on the fiscal cliff, the Bush tax cuts, and the debt limit. There are also hawks in his own party who would welcome the domestic cuts, but mightily resist the defense ones. But you can’t have one without the other—and so there’s an even chance that we will have neither.
The next path forward for Republicans, an easy and false feint, is to trick America into thinking they’ve changed without changing much of what they stand for. It’s the cosmetic option—new slogans, same old substance; better communication, not better content. It’s typified by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who delivered a fiery sermon calling on the GOP to “stop being the stupid party.” But he didn’t say which of the party’s dumb ideas he would jettison. And then returned to Baton Rouge to promote a wildly regressive tax system that would slam the middle class and the poor to lavish more on those who already have the most. There’s a new Republican idea—right?
Like Jindal, Republican leaders generally have talked about renewal, but walked away from making real and realistic changes. The party’s challenge is not its branding, but its products. You can only traffic so long in an anodyne phrase like “entitlement reform” before Americans figure out that you’re intent on shredding Medicare, Social Security, and education.
The last, best, and perhaps impossible alternative is for Republicans to heed the counsel of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president: “As our situation is new, we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.”
On gun regulation, take the prospect of a universal background check—which I’ve already noted has over 90 percent support among Americans. It could pass, and it just may—if some GOP members dare to do what’s right despite the National Rifle Association. But listening to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s January 30 hearing and the expostulations of fired-up House members, it’s possible to conclude that the GOP now stands for Guns Over People. Ironically, the more the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre batters on about turning schools into armed camps, the more he hurts his own cause and the Republicans enlisted with him.
In 1995, George H.W. Bush resigned his lifetime membership in the NRA when LaPierre defended his description of federal agents as “jackbooted thugs,” even after the Oklahoma City bombing. Seventeen years on, maybe congressional Republicans could resign their role as rubber stamps for the gun fanatics. Now that would be genuine change.
So would GOP assent to comprehensive immigration reform—with a path to citizenship. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have forged a compromise with Senate Democrats. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter promptly denounced Rubio as “amazingly naive.” The National Review assailed him for having “lashed himself to ... the Ted Kennedy Testimonial Immigration Plan”—presumably similar to the one Kennedy negotiated with Ronald Reagan in 1986 and then with George W. Bush in 2006.
It may be painful, but this is an acid test for Republicans. If they can’t adapt here, they won’t adapt anywhere. Yet the brutish rhetoric inevitably coming from GOP opponents will only alienate Hispanics even more than they already are. And Rubio himself may ultimately be forced to abandon the effort. He’s already promised Rush Limbaugh that he won’t be “part of a bidding war” with Obama. Rubio’s preparing to run for president in 2016. He knows Republicans can’t take the White House without appealing to Hispanics. But he also knows another basic rule: he can’t be elected without being nominated—and in the end he will have to appease anti-immigrant primary voters.
Rove has just tried to rationalize the GOP’s plight, and discount the Obama realignment, in a Wall Street Journal column that is a collection of statistics without a coherent or relevant argument. He serves up the Kool-Aid of elections past without accounting for the crucial differences in today’s electorate. He cheers that Obama received fewer votes in 2012 than in 2008. What does that prove about a president who overcame the economic headwinds Rove was certain to the last nanosecond would defeat him, as Bush’s brain resisted Fox News’s decision to call Ohio for Obama? Rove allows that the Republicans “have a perception problem” with Hispanics. If they don’t understand that their problem is more than that, look for 16 years of Barack—and say, then Hillary or Joe—in the Oval Office.
President Obama is a transformative figure in a transforming country. After his inaugural address, conservative columnist Rich Lowry complained: “He’s an unabashed liberal determined to shift our politics and our country.” Actually, he already has. Not just on the Capitol steps, but in long months of campaigning, and now day after day, he hasn’t just been speaking to America. Much as it hurts Republicans to hear it, Barack Obama has been speaking for America.