For many Republicans, the outcome of last month’s election was as unwelcome as it was unexpected. Capping four years of constant dissent and hyperbole, the failure to unseat an apparently vulnerable President represents an unquestionable defeat for the country’s resurgent conservative movement, which the GOP has come to embody. In the end, it wasn’t even close; Obama won both the Electoral College (332 to 206) and the popular vote (50.8% to 47.5%, which the Republicans have now lost in five of the past six elections) by convincing margins, and the Democrats even managed to pick up seats in both houses of Congress. Only shrewd Congressional redistricting allowed the GOP to hold on to the House of Representatives, where Democrats won 52% of the popular vote. Billions of dollars in campaign expenditures, outright attempts to disenfranchise millions of voters, and an incessant stream of misinformation were simply not enough to persuade Americans that the country would be better off with Mitt Romney as its CEO. It was not supposed to be this way; the conservative media had long claimed that the Republicans had ‘momentum’ and ‘enthusiasm’ on their side, that no President in modern history had been re-elected with the economy in such poor shape, and that Obama’s failures—real or imagined—would cause his previous supporters to either stay home or turn their backs in disappointment. This proved to be wishful thinking. Punditry and spin ultimately lost out to statistics and reason, further discrediting—if at all possible—the country’s right-wing ‘news’ outlets and political commentators while demonstrating the extent to which an insular, self-referential conservative movement is almost entirely disconnected from reality. When Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asked Karl Rove “Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?” the answer seemed rather obvious. What conservatives now require is some serious self-reflection. Wasting this opportunity could have serious consequences.
Some have argued that the party must broaden its base if it wants to again become electable. This line is most popular with independent observers and the party’s more ‘moderate’ members and for obvious reasons. The Republican Party primarily appeals to older white voters, especially men: according to a CNN exit poll cited in The Economist, Romney won majorities amongst men (52% to 42%), whites (59% to 39%), seniors (56% to 44%), and people with an annual income of over $50,000 (53% to 45%), but lost amongst women (44% to 55%), blacks (6% to 93%), Hispanics (27% to 71%), 18-29 year-olds (37% to 60%), and those who earn less than $50,000 a year (38% to 60%). According to one estimate, as many as 62% of white men voted for Mitt Romney, compared to only 35% for Obama. Given the country’s current demographic trends, this coalition can no longer provide the electoral success that it could in the past. Young people tend to be more liberal than previous generations, and their political influence will only continue to grow. Women too have good reason to feel alienated by a party whose approach to gender issues appears increasingly outdated and reactionary; importantly, a majority of white women have voted Republican in the past three elections (55% in 2004, 53% in 2008 and 56% in 2012). Perhaps most significant is the GOP’s self-inflicted lack of support amongst Hispanic voters, which means that states such as Texas, Arizona and Florida—where Hispanics make up, respectively, 37.6%, 29.6% and 22.5% of the total population according to the most recent census data—could soon join the Democratic camp. These three states represent a combined 78 Electoral College votes, and all play a key role in the GOP’s electoral success. A number of Republicans have recently sought to counter this shift by reversing their position on immigration reform, but such pandering seems awkward, disingenuous, and simply not good enough. With the virtual disappearance of ‘moderate’ Republicans from the party’s ranks, the chances of moving beyond superficial measures to appeal for broader electoral support are minimal at best. The party’s position as the bastion for disgruntled white voters is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, as is its lack of appeal to those whom it constantly demonises.
In contrast, others maintain that Romney failed because he lacked sufficient conservative credentials. According to this logic, what American voters truly wanted was a candidate who would balance the budget by dramatically cutting both tax rates and government spending while returning the country, in both social and foreign policy terms, to an ill-defined golden era of its mythologised past. Such an explanation is hardly credible. Even considering his infamous inconsistency and much-publicised ‘move to the centre’ in the last month of the election, Romney’s claim to be “severely conservative” was one of his most truthful statements of the entire campaign. Rarely did he depart from the radical positions that he adopted during the Republican primaries, and there is little reason to believe that he would not govern accordingly. Even his ‘gaffes’—from his infamous ‘47%’ remarks to simply claiming that he is not concerned about the poor—were actually candid articulations of core Republican values and indeed fell far short of rhetoric that he used to win over the party’s more radical members just months before. This, more than anything else, made him unelectable in the eyes of most of the country. With similar reasons at the heart of the GOP’s failure to reclaim control of the Senate, pragmatic Republicans should realise that shifting increasingly rightward is not in the party’s best interests. The Tea Party’s rise may have brought significant electoral success in 2010; in the future, however, it will most likely have the opposite effect.
Republicans seem to have taken few lessons from this defeat, and with a firm majority in the House and enough Senate seats to filibuster Democratic legislation, they are apparently content to continue their obstructionist tactics and prolong the paralysing status quo that has plagued the government for almost two years. The effects of this may be felt almost immediately, with deficit negotiations aimed at avoiding the ‘fiscal cliff’—the spending cuts and revenue increases that will kick in at the beginning of 2013—now underway. In place of modest increases on top marginal income tax rates, Republicans favour addressing the country’s ballooning public debt through deep cuts to spending, particularly on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. President Obama, who has signalled his intention to allow the ‘Bush tax cuts’ to expire for the wealthiest Americans, prefers a plan that combines spending cuts with revenue increases, even if the former significantly outweighs the latter. Whether or not the Republicans will compromise on such a deal remains to be seen, especially as 238 of 242 Republican House members and 41 of 47 Republican Senators have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to oppose “any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business” and “any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits”, both of which are seen as central to any workable deal. Though less than a month having passed since November’s election, the time for Republicans to decide their future is already here. Regardless of what direction they take, however, they may find that regaining their lost popularity, credibility, and, above all, electability, will be rather more difficult than expected.