GOP Panic: How to Save the ‘Party of Lincoln'

Photo by Kenya Hudson

The Grand Old Party is living up to the "old," according to Nov. 4 exit polls. The poll revealed the vast brunt of Republican voters to be elderly, rural and overwhelmingly white in a country that is increasingly none of the above with each passing year. A quick sweep of the audience during failed Republican nominee John McCain's Nov. 4 concession speech similarly revealed very little color, and the party's journey to the fringe was more obvious this week as it lost more control of the Senate and House, as well as the presidency.

The party's control over state legislatures fell to 14 in 2008, and it now holds only 21 governorships. Republican governorships had only recently jumped from 18 in 1992 to 29 in 2004, while that same year Republican control of legislatures had risen from 8 to 20.

The Republican Party saw less failure in Mississippi, with Republican Sen. Roger Wicker successfully fending off Democratic challenger Ronnie Musgrove and netting a McCain victory. Republicans were unable to topple Democratic congressional pick-up Travis Childers, however, despite Childers occupying the seat in a largely conservative district for a handful of months.

"It's all about organization," said Republican Party Chairman Brad White. "Our party has got to build a better organization from the ground up. We've got to have a plan, and then we've got to work our plan. Our stances on issues aren't wrong. What's wrong is our ability to communicate them to others."

A Shrinking Demographic?
In a time when a new generation of Americans is becoming increasingly progressive, communicating with younger voters has proved especially hard for Republicans, however.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a non-partisan organization that promotes youth registration, reported that the youth vote on Nov. 4 increased to 18 percent, according to National Exit Polls, up from 17 percent in 2004.

That 1 percent would have been even more impressive, said CIRCLE Director Pete Levine, if other sectors of the national population had not also turned out to vote in higher numbers.

As it stands, more than half, about 55 percent, of the normally disaffected 18-to-29 crowd went to the polls.

Democrats say the political drive of youth is more in line with Democratic ideals these days. Young voters embraced the Obama/Biden ticket much more than the rest of the population, preferring the Democrats 66 percent to 32 percent, partially due to the candidates' attitudes on social programs like the expansion of government-assisted health care and his emphasis on expanding government grants for college education. Youth also do not generally share their more conservative parents' concerns over abortion and birth control, like Obama, and they have considerably less fear of homosexuality and are generally indifferent to the idea of gay marriage or restricting it.

Younger people, even in the South, are less concerned about a culture war, and they are part of a new "civic generation" that may remake the political map for years to come, say the authors of "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics," written by Vice President Al Gore policy adviser Morely Winograd and Michael Hais.

The authors, who turned out to be eerily accurate in their predictions about this year's elections, promise a cyclical political shift as a result of this new "civic" generation moving into politics—and confronting "triggering events that cause a societal and political crisis," such as the Sept. 11 attacks and the government's inadequate response to Katrina.

This generation is not as interested in shrinking government, as having an effective government undergirded by compassion on a daily basis, and that is prepared to deal with the kinds of crises that were pivotal episodes in young people's lives in the last 10 years.

"Even as the Bush administration continues to demonstrate its inability to rebuild New Orleans, large majorities of popular opinion in favor of a forceful and competent government response in times of emergency have not dissipated, especially among community-oriented Millennials," the book's authors state.

That could be a problem for Republicans, if the numbers keep growing, which the authors predict will happen.

CIRCLE's estimate of 55 percent youth voter turnout is an increase of up to 6 percentage points over the organization's 2004 estimate. The total increase in youth turnout between the years 2000 to 2008 could prove between 8 and 13 percentage points-—the second highest youth turnout since 1972, when draft-leery young people attempted to overthrow GOP incumbent Richard Nixon for anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern. The roughly 24 million voters ages 18-to-29 who showed up in 2008 represent an increase of about 2.2 million over 2004.

In Mississippi, exit polls showed that about 60 percent of voters under 30 voted for Obama, and that included all races. That number was comparable to the percentage of those under 30 who voted for John Kerry in 2004.

Could these numbers have an impact in Mississippi? North Carolina may hold the answer.

Obama the Conservative?
CIRCLE maintains that Obama won the youth vote in North Carolina by nearly 50 points, with 73 points over John McCain's 27. The Democrat lost every other age group in that state, but still managed to eke out enough of an advantage to turn the state a very pale shade of blue during the national election. Had the election been closer, the youth could have proven to be the Democratic Party's savior this time around.

Still, leaders of the southern Republican Party are unconvinced that the party's failure to garner "Halo voters" has anything to do with party philosophy.

Brent Woodcox, communications director and assistant legal counsel for the North Carolina Republican Party, said the youth in his state did not turn out because of Obama's political arguments, but rather his ability to communicate to voters through texting.

"Obama's campaign copied the Bush '04 model and made it better. They used text messaging and Internet communication. Their get-out-the-vote message was almost exclusively internet-based," Woodcox said in an interview.

"Replicating that formula and reaching out with messages that (voters) believe in is the key to the Republican Party's efforts to reach out to voters in the future."

In a dramatic shift from his party's "socialist" scare tactics about Obama before Nov. 4, Woodcox, who is 26, said Obama actually ran on a host of conservative values, such as tax cuts for the middle class and fiscal discipline in Washington. He said the Grand Old Party could be more relevant and, well, less old if it concentrated on issues such as job security and employee-based heath coverage, as well as renewable energy, and left issues such as increased government regulation of pollution (another youth priority) to individual party candidates and their platforms.

"We do identify government as a part of the problems sometimes, but we also realize that government is sometimes in the best position to offer solutions as well," Woodcox said. "Safety and infrastructure is why government exists in the first place. We need to make sure government does these things well."

Woodcox was not ready to acknowledge young voters' gathering indifference to abortion restriction and gay marriage as divisive wedge issues. Some philosophies, he argues, you just can't relinquish.

Youth turn-out in Mississippi tripled, according to CIRCLE, though their presence was still obviously not enough to prevent McCain from taking the state with 58 percent approval.

Still, Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Brad White—who is 31—said his party needed to work exceptionally hard to communicate Republican issues to young voters who largely shut the party out this November.

"I became involved with the party through the association of Teenage Republicans, and our party has dropped the ball on a lot of that stuff. It's very important to me that we reinvigorate some of these youth-recruitment programs in the state of Mississippi, and on the national level as well," White said.

"It's all about organization. Our party has got to build a good organization from the ground up. We've got to have a plan and then we've got to work our plan."

No Change Planned
White, like Woodcox, was not ready to concede that the party should evolve on some issues for the sake of gaining new voters among young adults.

"I'm all for change on some issues. I agree with other people because nobody's right 100 percent of the time, but I think there are some fundamental issues, like abortion, gay marriage, or government giveaway programs that, personally, I do not believe are things I could ever adhere to," White said. "If the Republican Party started doing whatever it took to win elections and to hell with what we stand for I don't think I could remain in a party like that. … [T]here are some issues out there that, for me, as an individual, there's just no room for discussion."

When asked what to make of youth's apparent affection for increased government expenditures like expanded government-assisted health care, White responded that he believed young people would simply grow out of that view.

"We hope their opinion will change with age, that it'll come with maturity and personal responsibility," White said. "If we continue down the path of government-assisted health care, an old person (on Medicare) will need an Ace bandage in the emergency room and (Medicare) won't be able to afford it."

Liberal Mississippi political author Jere Nash said he hoped with all his heart that Republican leaders like White maintained this kind of philosophy.

"Young people are more tolerant of people who are not like them. They thrive on knowing people who are different than they are. The political party that recognizes this is going to be the growing party, while the one that refuses to recognize that will dwindle down to its core base. Personally, I hope against all hope that Republicans continue to resist any change. It will be the best thing that could happen to the Democratic Party."

Nash said the Republican Party chained itself to a falling rock during the 1970s when it allied itself with the religious right. By so doing, it locked itself into a host of rigid social positions that find less and less appeal with the nation's increasingly cosmopolitan youth.

"Outside of the South, religion is not as strong as it used to be. Look at all the Pew research done on the role of religion, and you find that it's losing its ability to motivate kids. As long as Republicans hitch their wagon to James Dobson (the leader of über-conservative Focus on the Family), they will continue to lose young people," Nash said.

Bob Moser, author of "Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority," speculated that the GOP was destined for a shake-up with internal factions poised to wage war over the emerging face of the party.

"There are people within the party who definitely recognize the demographic and generational changes and recognize that the old formulas trotted out this time by the presidential campaign didn't work. There will be this recognition among a lot of operatives and strategists in the party, but activists on the ground in the party will be fighting against those changes tooth and nail," Moser said.

"Ultimately, the party will have to move in a more moderate direction and connect with issues like environmentalism and the more pro-government attitudes of young people to win, but it will take a few more election cycles for that to shake out."

The Gay Question
Log Cabin Republican Policy Director Jimmy LaSalvia said his party is not so far away from a massive policy shift.

"One recent poll … done of the delegates to the Republican National Convention this year revealed that 48 percent of the delegates to the convention, the hardcore members of the party, either supported marriage equality for gay couples or civil unions," LaSalvia said.

"The marriage and civil union question combined equaled 48 percent. Four years ago that number was in the 30s. Our party is divided on that issue, but frankly, the country is moving very fast in favor of marriage and equal rights for gay people. If there are some members of the party who want to hold our party back over this issue, then they're doing our party a disservice," he said.

Like Moser, LaSalvia said the party aligned itself with evangelicals after the Reagan administration and in the process turned off youth by putting too much emphasis on divisive social issues and not enough emphasis on core values.

"We just need to look at the late 1980s, at the end of Reagan's presidency, when Pat Robertson ran for president. That was the beginning, and we certainly we saw it in 1992, when the convention was turned into a culture war with Pat Buchanan's speech, and cost the first Bush the presidency," LaSalvia said.

"The (evangelical) movement was gaining momentum and reached a pinnacle during the election 2004 cycle."

The Log Cabin Republicans, which represent gay members of that party, support civil marriage equality for same-sex couples on the argument that marriages are good for families, no matter how diverse the family. It joined with other, less Republican-minded organizations in unsuccessfully fighting the Proposition 8 amendment to the California constitution this year (to roll back gay rights and civil unions), but endorsed the McCain ticket, primarily because McCain refused to back the 2006 proposed U.S. constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Ironically, it is believed that Proposition 8 may have won due to increased African American turnout for Obama, furthering complicating future political maps. Obama has reached out to homosexuals, but has stopped short of supporting gay marriage rights.

Few personalities contradict one another as much as LaSalvia and White, however.

White was deliberating over the party's future success last week in discouraging same-sex marriage through the use of ballot initiatives like the California initiative, since amending constitutions against gay marriage through the courts had proved less successful.

LaSalvia said the two groups would have to unite under one universal list of priorities if the party was to survive.

"The party needs to take a good hard look at itself and determine what our priorities are. I'm a Republican because I believe in limited government and lower taxes, and free trade and a strong national defense.

"Those are my priorities, and I think social fundamentalists driving the party need to ask themselves that same question," LaSalvia said.

"The 2008 election results tell a story of the priorities of the American people, and our leadership needs to take notice."

The Greening of the GOP
Republicans for Environmental Protection Policy Director Jim DePeso said the party's environmentalist priorities have also taken a low rung on the ladder for way too long. The movement's widespread rejection, he said, has pushed the party even more out of step with voters who overwhelmingly support environmental preservation.

"For too long the party has been run by people who want to take the Republican tent and turn it into a sleeping bag filled only by people of an ultra pure thinking," DePeso said. "Anybody who dares to deviate from the accepted dogmas in any degree shall be cast out into the outer garden. That's absolutely counter to the argument of Ronald Reagan. He did not characterize himself as your '20 percent enemy.' He was your '80 percent friend.' You don't build a majority in this country by purging, dividing and polarizing people."

The environmental movement within the party has largely been an underground movement, even though environmentalist Republicans argue that protecting the environment qualifies, in every way, as a conservative issue and, indeed, has become a "creation care" movement for many conservative evangelicals. They argue that God's creation must be cared for more lovingly, and that its destruction hurts the poor more than it does the wealthy, who tend to lead the destruction.

In 2006, a score of evangelical leaders signed the "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action" (PDF) that laid out a different course on the environment than had been previously pursued by global warming deniers such as George W. Bush and many Republican Party leaders, who refused to acknowledge any harm that would cost industry supporters money or indicate a need for the cardinal sin: regulation.

The leaders publicly expressed their change of heart in the statement: "Over the last several years many of us have engaged in study, reflection, and prayer related to the issue of climate change (often called "global warming"). For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority. Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians."

The signers included Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church and author of "The Purpose Driven Life," Wheaton College President Duane Litfin, Christianity Today editor David Neff and Todd Bassett, national commander of the Salvation Army. Not on the list were prominent Christian leaders such as Dobson, who haven't been as quick to evolve on such issues.

For many, protecting God's green acre is a practice of their faith. For others, it's more pragmatic: Protecting the environment amounts to preventive maintenance. Ignoring it now means paying more later in disaster and poverty relief.

Many of those leaders may also be under pressure by the people they lead—especially those under 30. Increasingly, Christianity is no longer the province of the right wing, with progressive young people of faith demanding a shift in focus to issues such as the environment and poverty, and away from the culture war, which has provided much of the ammunition for the recent version of the Republican Party.

A GOP Crossroads
Republicans now are faced with two choices: Stay the present divisive course, or become a gentler, more progressive and inclusive party. Considering the demographics of the recent election, and the high unfavorability numbers of Sarah Palin, who fought the culture wars like few in modern times, old-style Republicans have to figure out how to attract younger faces in a dramatically changing climate, or risk becoming an extremely marginalized, and increasingly powerless party.

DePeso predicted party leaders would likely succumb to the urge to further marginalize the party, as recently suggested by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who bemoans the shift of the party away from the marketplace of ideas welcomed by his heros Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, and toward a more vicious, small-minded politics of a Palin or a Sean Hannity.

"I believe talk-radio types (like Rush Limbaugh) will continue to try to push the party to an even narrower ledge. The hardcore may succeed in the short term as far as putting the party on a narrower ledge, but over time, if we keep losing and losing and losing, eventually another part of you is going to prevail," DePeso said.

LaSalvia referenced the recent conservative resurgence in Britain.

"Over the last several years, in Great Britain, the conservatives were beaten and rendered nearly irrelevant. But in the last three or four years, they've come back, and they may even win the election next year. They've come back by championing conservative principals in terms of limited government, but also they've done outreach to the gay community and have gone green. They're pro-environment, pro-gay, and they're gaining support all over the country. There's no reason to think that couldn't happen here," LaSalvia said, adding that party leaders would be having "a family discussion" over the next couple of years, and predicted the discussion itself "would not be pleasant."

DePeso believes party evolution was unavoidable, however, despite the opinions of many party members who prefer the Grand Old Party to stay just as it is.

"Get your butt kicked twice in a row, and you'd better start thinking about change, because if you keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, well we all know what that is,' he said.

Previous Comments

ID
140645
Comment

Republicans stance on issue aren't wrong, the execution is? What is this guy Brad White snorting or using to evade reality. They surely have that race/racism issue just right. LOL. They don't know what rejection is apparently. Believing your own lies is cataclysmic, catastropic and cataleptic.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-11-13T12:00:37-06:00
ID
140648
Comment

Very good column, Adam. Lots of information. Good reporting I think they call it. It'a about time we got rid of people who hate the federal government and see it only as an instrument to loot and rob for the purpose of privatizing all formerly held governmental services in order to make their friends and corporations richer in order to receive kickbacks and personal wealth at taxpayers expense. This is exactly what the Bush and Cheney administation has done. No doubt about it! Young people are not dumb and they will seve some blowback, payback and setbacks to anyone who keeps taking them for granted. The covers have come off the republicans. Wearing suits, aligning yourself with religious figures or buying religion coupled with arguing families values, economic progress and national security won't fare for long when act after act shows you're nothing but a false prohpet/preacher/facilitator and predator. Your deeds define you, not your words. Republican can't stand behind their deeds.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-11-13T12:18:14-06:00
ID
140649
Comment

The problem is that scoundrels have overtaken a party that used to be decent, and was in fact the "Party of Lincoln," and even diverse. I will do anything in my power to encourage good people in the Republican Party to take back their party from the culture warriors and turn it into something to be proud of again. As an anti-party kind of gal, I want to see at least two progressive parties in this country, not just one. The recent Republican Party made deals with the devil for too long, in no state worse than this one. I believe strongly that younger Republicans are going to demand change (and we'll give them a forum for it). And I've said for years that the GOP in Mississippi could easily become more progressive than the Democratic Party here. It had better get its ass into gear.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2008-11-13T12:35:27-06:00
ID
140650
Comment

The reason republicans don't know rejection when they see it is because they know they should have been rejected over a decade ago but a large mass of folks who prefer fiction over the truth wouldn't reject them. The new generation is not willing to be this generous and stupid. Not at thier cost and expense. It's my sincerest prayer that the Lawd has sent us Obama, Biden and like kind to lead us out of darkness and back into the light, and that racism and republicans, largesly the same in my opinion, will be dealt such a fatal or, at least, debilitating blow that the proponents of either will look foolish in the process of resurrection.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-11-13T12:39:05-06:00
ID
140656
Comment

The real hope for the Republican Party is if it actually changes and gets away from fringe social issues that the majority are not obsessed with outside of the hill country and mountains of the south where Republicans can still get elected with the same old formula (for now). That formula will be a recipe for certain defeat in 2010 in other areas. The Senate seats of Arlen Specter (R-PA), Mel Martinez (R-FL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) will all be vulnerable in 2010. I doubt they will want to go out on a limb and filibuster anything that seems reasonable to moderate and independent voters in those states. The mistake that some Republicans continue to be guilty of is what psychologists call egocentric attribution error --- assuming that others share your concerns. That is what got us into the idiocy in Iraq. What happened to the flowers and candy our troops were supposed to receive? The neo-cons were clueless and are now left dazed and confused. Moderates on immigration amnesty such as Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Chuck Hagel have been labeled *Republicans in Name Only* by the Rush Limbaugh crowd. So have senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Spector who have been very moderate and sometimes *liberal* on social issues. This is why there is an emphasis on keeping Joe Lieberman in the Democratic caucus to the chagrin of many progressives. The progressive coalition will need Lieberman and these other *Republicans* with moderate tendencies in order to stifle filibusters and get a serious program passed. The Dems will need to consistently pick up at least three or four non-Dems to stifle filibusters. If they play it smart and avoid alienating the somewhat reasonable so-called *Rockefeller or Eisenhower Republicans*, then they can pass historic legislation without hindrance from the lunatic fringe elements and ensure a long winter for the far right fringe until they become reality-based and embrace pragmatic moderates. Sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don't. Increasingly, America does not want a nutty version of policy.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2008-11-13T13:41:09-06:00
ID
140658
Comment

Then maybe we can finally get ole derailin'Palin in line with reality, too. She's still mad that the black beauty contestant and Obama have beaten her. She hates us. I have no doubt. I understand we need to keep Lieberman in as much as that is possible. We certainly need a coalition of decent people no matter their party affiliation. I'm all for that.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-11-13T13:51:52-06:00

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