National Edition

GOP struggles to redefine party under electoral pressure

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 1:10 p.m. MDT

“If you look at the exit polls,” said Sean Trende, elections analyst for realclearpolitics.com, “there is no drop off in the evangelical vote.” If so, it was not Romney’s religion that kept white voters home but rather his lack of populist appeal.

“Look at the ads Obama ran to reach out to blue-collar whites,” Trende said. “It was, ‘Mitt Romney is not one of us.’ ”

In a detailed four-part series with graphs, tables and layered projections of voter turnout and population growth, Trende recently argued that the GOP should focus first on “the missing white voter.” He called for “jettisoning the pro big-business, Wall Street-style conservatism that characterized the Romney campaign for something authentically geared more toward downscale voters.”

Trende’s target is the Ross Perot voter — lower on the socioeconomic rungs, vulnerable to economic downturns, fearful of competition from immigrants or free trade. Which is not to say that Trende opposes either trade or immigration, just that the GOP must find some way to reach and mobilize these voters.

Flash point

Trende’s analysis quickly became a flash point, drawing multiple rebuttals. Most critics honed in on his argument that an even higher GOP share of the white vote and higher white turnout should both be possible. GOP strategist Karl Rove countered in a Wall Street Journal op ed that “more white votes alone won’t save the GOP.” Similar reports appeared in left-leaning publications, all focusing on the white vote as a losing nostrum.

But conservative New York Times columnist Russ Douthat came to Trende’s defense, arguing his critics misunderstood him. Trende never meant to argue that recovering white voters was a solo solution, Douthat said. His point was simply that the “‘missing white voters’ are the lowest-hanging fruit for a party trying to rebuild itself, and that the kind of populist arguments that resonate with that constituency might actually offer the Republicans a better chance with minority voters in the longer run as well.”

That argument is buttressed by polls showing that Hispanic voters’ priorities closely overlap those of other voters. A recent Pew poll on Hispanic policy priorities, for example, showed education, jobs and health care all at over 50 percent, the federal deficit at 36 percent. Immigration came in fifth at 34 percent, barely ahead of taxes at 33.

Douthat argued that much of the pressure to pass the Senate immigration reform bill comes from Republicans looking for “as a brilliant-and-easy way to avoid any kind of broader rethinking on economics" and who are "pressing immigration reform on their co-partisans as the only conceivable alternative to swift political extinction.”

Visions of 1988

On Wednesday, Sean Trende and a handful of prominent policy and election wonks will meet at the Brookings Institution to hash out the future of the GOP and decide whether the immigration bill is the answer to the party’s woes. One of those on the panel will be Bill Galston, a Brookings fellow and a Democrat who knows very well what Republicans are going through.

In the late 1980s Galston worked with the Democratic Leadership Council, a coalition of centrist Democrats, mostly state and local leaders in the heartland, who had tired of their party losing presidential elections.

1988 was the Democrat’s third straight presidential loss. Discounting Jimmy Carter’s narrow 1976 victory, the last non-Watergate driven win for Democrats had been 1964 — nearly a generation of failure.

Democrats controlled both houses of Congress in 1989, of course, and they held a majority of governorships and state legislatures, much as Republicans do today.

But DLC Democrats felt the crisis was real.

“Democrats have ignored their fundamental problems,” wrote Galston in a seminal paper coauthored with Elaine Kamarck in 1989. “In place of reality they have offered wishful thinking; in place of analysis, myth.”

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