Are Republicans the New Democrats?

Who would have guessed last year that the GOP would be endorsing a litany of previously unthinkable positions? By Andrew Romano.

Blend Images, via Corbis

These days, Republicans are starting to sound a lot like Democrats. It may not seem obvious at first, especially when every elephant in Washington is loudly and proudly refusing to negotiate with President Barack Obama over the sequestration fiasco.

But put down your newspaper. Log off the blogs. Step back for a second. Look at what the GOP said it stood for during the 2012 campaign, which concluded four short months ago. Now look at the legislation the same party is proposing—and the positions its members are staking out—today.

The gap is staggering. If it continues to grow, it may come to represent one of the most rapid and drastic party makeovers in recent American political history.

Let’s start with social issues. When the GOP ratified its 2012 platform during last summer’s convention in Tampa, Florida, it was very clear on gay marriage: no same-sex unions allowed.

“We reaffirm our support for a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” the delegates wrote. “We applaud the citizens of the majority of States which have enshrined in their constitutions the traditional concept of marriage, and we support the campaigns underway in several other States to do so.”

On the trail, the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, said pretty much the same thing. “I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender,” he explained, “and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name.” Like the RNC delegates, Romney also supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

But that was then. Now, Beth Myers, who ran Romney’s 2008 campaign and served as a senior adviser to him in 2012, has joined more than 100 other Republicans—including former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr., New York Rep. Richard Hanna, and fellow Romney adviser Meg Whitman—in adding her name to a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that gay couples have a constitutional right to wed.

Large swaths of the GOP have pulled a similar 180 on immigration. During the 2012 primaries, Romney made it his mission to outflank his rivals on the issue, repeatedly declaring that he favored a policy of “self-deportation” and would veto the DREAM act if elected. As he put it in New Hampshire, “for those that come here illegally, the idea of giving them in-state tuition credits or other special benefits I find to be the contrary to the idea of a nation of law.”

Romney’s party agreed, crafting a 2012 platform that opposed “any forms of amnesty” for illegal immigrants, instead endorsing “humane procedures to encourage illegal aliens to return home voluntarily”—i.e., self-deportation. “In order to restore the rule of law,” the GOP delegates wrote, “federal funding should be denied to universities that provide in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens.”

But, again, that was then. Now, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is actively working on a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform bill in Washington, and at least four of his fellow 2016 hopefuls—Wisconsin Representative (and 2012 vice-presidential nominee) Paul Ryan, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—have come out in favor of a pathway to citizenship (or come close). Sean Hannity is now pro-citizenship; so is Fox News chief Roger Ailes.

Meanwhile, Republicans legislators in Colorado and Oregon have reversed course in the new year, voting in favor of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

The transformation has been so sudden, in fact, that earlier this week former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, himself a potential 2016 candidate, had to walk back a position from his new book, Immigration Wars, on the same day it was released, announcing on MSNBC that he doesn’t “have a problem” with a pathway to citizenship—despite a sentence in the book that makes the exact opposite argument. (“It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that … those who violated the law can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.”) Asked to explain the about-face, Bush blamed the shifting political sands. “We wrote this last year,” he said.

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The GOP’s attitude toward social issues isn’t the only thing that’s changed since the distant days of 2012; the new year has also seen seismic shifts on Obamacare and defense spending. You might recall that during the 2012 campaign, the Republican Party was not particularly pleased with Obama’s health-reform law. Romney pledged “to repeal Obamacare on Day One”; the GOP platform characterized the law, variously, as “an attack on our Constitution,” “the high-water mark of outdated liberalism,” and “the latest attempt to impose upon Americans a euro-style bureaucracy to manage all aspects of their lives.” Meanwhile, Republican governors such as Arizona’s Jan Brewer, Utah’s Gary Herbert, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Florida’s Rick Scott vowed to not to implement the dreaded Obamacare under any circumstances.

But now those governors have changed their minds. In recent weeks, each has agreed to expand his or her state’s Medicaid program as outlined under Obama's health-care law. The Rick Scott example is especially telling. As New York’s Jonathan Chait writes, “from the moment he appeared on the national stage, Scott seemed to be engineered to fight health-care reform. The wealthy owner of a vast hospital chain that paid massive fines for overbilling Medicare during his tenure, Scott bankrolled an anti-reform lobby, then ran and won in 2010 on a platform of obsessive opposition to Obamacare. He has steadfastly vowed to turn down federal subsidies to cover his state’s uninsured, and even concocted phony accounting assumptions to justify his stance.” But no more. “It doesn’t matter what I believe,” Scott said late last month. “The Supreme Court made its decision. We had an election in the fall, and the public made their decision. Now the president’s healthcare law is the law.”

Defense spending is a similar story. For decades, Republicans have agreed that the military budget should not be cut under any circumstances, and they’ve bludgeoned any Democrat who suggests otherwise for being “weak on defense.” In 2012, Romney was so wedded to this position that he promised to expand the defense budget to 4 percent of GDP—a proposal that would have hiked federal spending by $2 trillion over 10 years at a time of soaring debt and shrinking revenue. “The idea of cutting our military commitment ... is unthinkable, and devastating," Romney said. “And when I become president of the United States, we will stop it. I will not cut our commitment to our military.”

But since the election, Republicans have grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of cutting defense spending—and last week, by forcing the sequester to go into effect, they finally triggered some cuts themselves. If nothing changes, the plan will gradually shrink the Pentagon’s budget to 2006 levels by slashing about $50 billion a year over the next decade. And so far, the GOP response has been surprisingly sanguine. As the Senate's No. 2 Republican, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told CNN late last month, the deficit should be paramount since the United States has ended its fighting in Iraq and is winding down the war in Afghanistan—and anyway, the cuts are not going to have as negative an impact as the Pentagon and others in the Obama administration are saying.

If you had predicted back in October 2012 that significant portions of the Republican Party would soon be OK with gay marriage, supportive of citizenship for illegal immigrants, accepting of Obamacare, and cool with defense cuts, many observers would have called you crazy. But as of March 2013, that’s the direction the GOP is heading. As generations of politicians have reminded us, elections have consequences. This time around, a major Republican identity crisis appears to be one of them.