WASHINGTON — Republicans shouldn’t worry that President Obama is trying to destroy the GOP. Why would he bother? The party’s leaders are doing a pretty good job of it themselves.
As they try to understand why the party lost an election it was confident of winning — and why it keeps losing budget showdowns in Congress — Republican grandees are asking the wrong questions. Predictably, they are coming up with the wrong answers.
They prefer to focus on flawed tactics and ineffectual “messaging” rather than confront the essential problem, which is that voters don’t much care for the policies the GOP espouses.
In post-debacle speeches and interviews, Republicans are sounding — and there’s no kind way to put this — paranoid and delusional. House Speaker John Boehner said in a speech to the Ripon Society that the Obama administration is trying to “annihilate the Republican Party.” Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s fiscal guru and failed vice presidential candidate, claimed Sunday on “Meet the Press” that Obama seeks “political conquest” of the GOP.
It is no secret that Obama is trying to advance a progressive agenda. He promised as much in his campaign speeches. Were Republicans not listening? Did they think he was just joshing?
In five of the last six presidential elections, Democrats have won the popular vote. Republicans have done well at the state level, and through redistricting have made their majority in the House difficult to dislodge. But it’s not possible to lead the country from the speaker’s chair, as Boehner can attest. To have a chance at effecting transformative change, you have to win the White House.
And to win the White House, you have to convince voters that the policies you seek to enact are the right ones. This is what the GOP doesn’t seem to understand.
“We’ve got to stop being the stupid party,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of the GOP’s brightest young stars, said in a much-anticipated speech at the party’s winter meeting last week. “We’ve got to stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people.”
That’s all well and good. But Jindal also warned that the party should not “moderate, equivocate or otherwise change our principles” on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, “government growth” and “higher taxes.”
On abortion, there is an uneasy consensus that the procedure should be legal but uncommon; the GOP wants to make abortion illegal, and the party’s loudest voices on the issue do not even favor exceptions for incest or rape. On gay marriage, public opinion is shifting dramatically toward acceptance; the Republican Party is adamantly opposed. On the size of government, Americans philosophically favor “small” — but, as a practical matter, demand services and programs that can only be delivered by “big.” And on taxes, voters agreed with Obama that the wealthy could and should pay a bit more.
“We must reject the notion that demography is destiny, the pathetic and simplistic notion that skin pigmentation dictates voter behavior,” Jindal said. These are noble and stirring words. But the GOP is insane if it does not at least ask why 93 percent of African-Americans, 71 percent of Latinos and 73 percent of Asian-Americans voted for Obama over Mitt Romney.
If minority voters continue to favor the Democratic Party to this extent, then demography will indeed prove to be destiny. What would be simplistic is to attribute the disparity to the fact that Obama is the first black president, or the fact that Republicans have been perceived as so unsympathetic on issues concerning immigration. If they want to attract minority support, Republicans will have to take into account what these voters believe on a range of issues, from the proper relationship between government and the individual to the proper role of the United States in a rapidly changing world.
I have to wonder if the GOP is even getting the tactics-and-messaging part right. Michael Steele (now an MSNBC colleague of mine) served as party chairman when Republicans won a sweeping victory in 2010; he was promptly fired. Reince Priebus presided over the 2012 disaster; last week, he was rewarded with a new term as chairman.
But no matter who’s in charge, the GOP will have a tough time winning national elections until it has a better understanding of the nation. If Boehner is worried about being shoved “into the dustbin of history,” what he and other Republicans need to do is put down the broom.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected] (c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group