It is unfortunate that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus named his after-action report of the 2012 election an “autopsy.” Since autopsies are performed on the dead, it seems out of place to refer to a political party that raised a billion dollars to elect a president, and hundreds of millions more to elect senators and congressman, as having passed on. Money may not be everything, but it is a telling marker relating to the commitment and enthusiasm of the party faithful.
This is especially true when one looks at the 11 races for governor, where the GOP actually picked up a statehouse in North Carolina. Republicans now control 30 governorships to 19 for the Democrats (Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican, won as an independent). In addition, 24 Republican governors preside over legislatures controlled by the GOP to just 12 for the Democrats.
Does this sound like a political party needing an autopsy?
The GOP is alive and well at the state level and has a deep bench of Republican governors, some of whom will almost certainly enter the race for president in 2016. But what marks many of these state executives is a pragmatic approach to governance that has been utterly rejected by many on the right as “Democrat-lite” and hence unworthy of consideration for the highest office in the land.
Regardless, Priebus commissioned the report based on the idea that something was fundamentally wrong with the party at the national level; in this, he hit the mark. As Thomas Edsall points out, the report was brutal in its frankness:
The G.O.P. report is an extraordinary public acknowledgment of internal discord and vulnerability, which has intensified the battle between the deeply committed conservative wing and the more pragmatic, pro-business wing for control of the Republican Party. With just a few exceptions, it does not mince words.
At the federal level, it says, the party is “marginalizing itself,” and, in the absence of major change, “it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win a presidential election in the near future.” Young voters are “rolling their eyes at what the party represents.” Voters’ belief that “the G.O.P. does not care about them is doing great harm.” Formerly loyal voters gathered in focus groups describe Republicans as “ ‘scary,’ ‘narrow-minded’ and ‘out of touch’ and that we were a party of ‘stuffy old men.’ ”
Alas, the report was dismissed as soon as it was published by the very people who had the most to gain by reading it. What should have sparked a serious discussion and an introspective look at the party’s failings became just one more attempt by the “establishment” to marginalize the right.
The problem with Republicans is not their stance on immigration reform, gay marriage, or abortion. Few believe that supporting the president’s immigration reform agenda will draw Hispanics to the party, or that doing a 180 and supporting gay marriage will mollify young people and result in them embracing the GOP. The problem with the party manifests itself in exactly the way this thoughtful report was received: with closed-mindedness and a paranoia about the motives for issuing it bordering on the pathological. What should have set off a round of serious debate about why voters don’t believe that Republicans care about them, or are out of touch, or are scary and narrow-minded actually resulted in a slugfest of vindictiveness and name-calling that only served to prove that the former GOP voters were right.
When things worked less well for conservatives who lacked Reagan’s luck and his genius, they decided their failure was explainable only by sabotage — after all, how else could they lose? On the way, the Right developed a sense of entitlement (the Republican Party owed them a nominee of their liking); an embrace of victimhood; a habit of translating their tactical failure to win over more voters into a moral failure on the part of those voters for not sensing their value; and a belief that they can manage to win more elections by purging all factions (and people) not wholly in sync with their views.
Tone-deaf conservatives who keep referring to the “47%” as if they are pond scum and constantly whine about the “low-information voter” are, at bottom, issuing a cry for help. Despite Republicans being told time and time again that there are tens of millions of senior citizens who vote Republican and pay no taxes, as well as millions of students and Social Security disability recipients who also vote Republican and pay nothing to the Treasury, the number “47%” is bandied about as if it explains everything. Can nothing penetrate the closed-information loop, the echo chamber that constantly buttresses the false belief that if parents have their kids’ insurance subsidized through S-CHIP that this automatically makes them Democratic voters? Do no Appalachian whites who get welfare or millions of former middle-class voters who now find themselves on food stamps vote Republican?
No one likes to be called ignorant, and constantly griping about the LIV — even when there is an equal or greater number of conservatives who fit that category — is, to put it gently, brainless. Do conservatives actually believe that by insulting tens of millions of voters they are going to sweep to victory?
Dismissing criticism based on its source, a deliberate and determined effort to marginalize those who fail to meet familiar litmus tests (even if the apostate agrees with the right 90% of the time), an unhealthy mistrust of empirical data, and a general lack of critical thinking that leads to one conspiracy theory after another — this is the modern “conservative” movement. Fed by delusional talk radio hosts and unhinged bloggers, it does, indeed, make the Republican party “’scary,’ ‘narrow-minded’ and ‘out of touch’.”
The failure of the right to practice even a smidgeon of introspection is why this state of affairs will continue. The unwillingness, or the inability, to take a step back and examine one’s assumptions and beliefs, testing them against what can be proven true or is self-evident, will continue to plague the Republican right and always end up forcing them into accepting the wrong conclusions for their failures. Would running a “real” conservative make a difference? When most of the right thinks a conservative governor from New Jersey is a liberal, it will become a test to see if there will ever be agreement on just who is a conservative and who isn’t.
Stuart Rothenberg gives the GOP an idea of what it is up against in the near future:
Since the GOP brand is damaged, it has little credibility with certain voters. And because politics is invariably in the eye of the beholder, voters who don’t even consider listening to the GOP will have to become receptive to Republican arguments before they are willing to consider voting for Republican candidates.
But that isn’t likely to happen until those voters grow disillusioned with the Democrats. That disillusionment could come next week, next year or in 10 years, depending on events and circumstances. But voters won’t listen to the recalibrated Republican message — or even new GOP messengers — until they are looking for something new.
The right will not overcome the dominant media narrative of the GOP as the party of extreme, close-minded white males by constantly proving it right. And if the 2012 defeat won’t reform conservatism, then a victory in the 2014 midterms where far fewer voters participate will serve only to exacerbate conservatism’s myopia and epistemic closure and set them up for a bigger fall in 2016.
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