Electorate has changed - so must Republican Party

From the Sacramento Bee - November 11, 2012 By Doug Elmets

If there was ever a moment that demanded some diligent soul-searching from Republicans, this is it. After the drubbing the Grand Old Party's candidates and causes received at the polls Tuesday, only Pollyannas and the seriously delusional could deny that something is very, very wrong.

By now the facts are widely known: Republicans will continue to control the U.S. House, but beyond that, there is little to celebrate. Despite a year when unemployment hovered persistently around 8 percent, despite a Democratic president with a job-approval rating below 50 percent, and despite a competent, amply funded candidate, Republicans could not regain the White House – or seize the edge in the Senate.

In California, the landscape is even gloomier. Democrats have grabbed a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly and Senate, not a single Republican holds statewide office, and GOP party registration has dipped below 30 percent. Before long, there could be more independents than Republicans registered to vote in our state.

And, lest we forget, the 2012 election rebuked the Republican Party on the cultural front as well. Ballot measures that for years were liberal Hail Marys – including those allowing gay marriage in Maine, Washington and Maryland and legalizing marijuana in Washington and Colorado – were this year embraced by voters.

Much has been written about the political calculus underlying this state of affairs. But the bottom line is the GOP has failed to notice that our electorate – and the principles and policies it holds dear – have changed. A lot.

On the national level, exit polls revealed that Mitt Romney captured the votes of six out of 10 white Americans, but lost decisively among ethnic minorities – by almost 40 percentage points among Hispanics, 50 points among Asians, and by more than 80 points among African Americans.

Latinos, who might otherwise feel a connection with the GOP's social conservatism and defense of small businesses, were no doubt alienated by the hostile rhetoric surrounding immigration. Women, who also helped usher President Barack Obama back into office, were likely deterred by the party's uncompromising stance on abortion rights and nomination of candidates such as Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin.

For gays, meanwhile, the GOP platform's description of state court decisions recognizing same-sex marriage as "an assault on the foundations of our society" was not exactly a welcome mat.

There are those who will grumble about our shifting demographics and pine for the proverbial good old days, for the "traditional America" that Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly says is long gone. But that sort of nostalgic fretting does little to turn the ship around.

It seems to me the Republican Party has two choices. It can evolve and begin to reflect, even modestly, American society and its values of today, or it can continue to wither into total obsolescence. I vote for the first path, and propose that Republicans need neither sacrifice core principles nor undergo an extreme makeover to reboot their party and regain broader appeal.

A few measures essential to recovery include:

• Developing policy positions and messages that attract minorities. This can't be left for the next election season. The work must start now, and the offering must be one of substance, not merely for show.

• Recruiting and nurturing a strong cast of Hispanic leaders with star quality. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez are a good start, but only two faces in the crowd.

• Remaining true to the party's small-government philosophy. The best thing the GOP has in its toolbox is skepticism of big government. Yes, many Americans want a government that can help solve our collective problems. But we are also a people who harbor suspicions of government and want to be left alone.

• Resisting the siren song of extremists. The tea party has become a barnacle on the Republican Party boat. That barnacle is sinking the ship with its litmus tests and candidate pledges demanding unswerving allegiance. Politics is about compromise, not catering to ideologues.

• Evolving and allowing for flexibility on social issues. Tolerance is in, and the GOP had better figure that out by 2016.

In the early 1980s, I had the privilege to work in the White House for President Ronald Reagan. Republicans at all points along the political spectrum love to wrap themselves in the Reagan flag, especially during campaigns, and he enjoys almost mythical status as the embodiment of bedrock party beliefs.

The sad truth is that if Ronald Reagan were running for president today, he would not get past the Republican primary. Unlike those in the GOP who now hold sway, Reagan was practical, a bridge builder, always willing to listen to the other side. He raised taxes when he had to, and he struck bipartisan deals with power brokers like Tip O'Neill to get things done.

How tragic that given Reagan's honorable legacy, we have allowed ourselves to stray down a lonely cul-de-sac of irrelevance.

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