Republicans in danger of being on the wrong side of history

Thu, Nov 8, 2012, 00:00

In many ways, Mitt Romney wasn’t all that different from Barack Obama.

He, too, was a blue-state, Harvard-educated technocrat who believed in the free market, strengthening the middle class and maintaining a strong military.

So, why couldn’t the Republican challenger unseat a president saddled with historically high unemployment and a sluggish United States economy just beginning to splutter to life? Part of the answer lies in Romney’s personal missteps.

No one else was to blame for his verbal gaffes, his failure to produce sufficient tax returns, his comments about the 47 per cent or his opportunistic about-turns on policies ranging from health insurance to abortion rights.

But that is only part of the picture. As details of the exit polls emerged yesterday, the Republican Party couldn’t escape a cold, hard demographic truth: the party had relied far too heavily on older, working-class white voters in rural and suburban America.

By contrast, Obama’s coalition of young people, women, African Americans and, above all, Hispanics coughed up millions of votes. It meant Democrats could get less than half the white vote and still win the presidency. This gap will only widen over the coming years.

The country is becoming less white and more diverse (or “more brown” as a Fox news contributor put it yesterday). Last year, for the first time, a majority of children born in the US were not white. A record 24 million Latinos were eligible to vote on Tuesday, an astounding 22 per cent increase on four years ago.

Demographics is destiny, as pollsters are fond of saying. And with the way the country’s profile is changing, Republicans are in danger on being on the wrong side of history.

Questions

Among the questions facing the party now are whether it should keep to the same rightward, Tea Party-driven tilt with its conservative principles of fiscal restraint, tax-cutting and opposition to government interference of any hue.

Or should it seek instead to recognise that the demographic tide is turning and try appealing more to younger voters, college-educated women and the growing Hispanic and African American population?

Blaming the Tea Party brigade seems an obvious answer to outsiders, who recoil at its extremist tendencies. This type of candidate, the argument goes, is chosen for reasons of ideological purity rather than broad appeal to voters.

However, the strength of the party’s conservatives in Congress may well limit any attempt to shift back toward the centre ground. There were some high-profile Tea Party casualties, such as Richard Mourdock (who said pregnancy arising from rape was an “act of God”) and Todd Akin (who said women’s bodies had a way of shutting down a pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape”). But they were fatally damaged by extremist comments that even the Tea Party disowned. The party’s Republicans in the House easily held on to their majority and, if anything, will be even more conservative in the next Congress.

People such as Matt Kibbe, of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, said yesterday its members felt more empowered than ever to set the national agenda and influence Capitol Hill, given the so-called fiscal cliff of expiring tax cuts and mandatory budget cuts looming on the horizon.

But there are those in the centrist wing of the party, such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who have watched with unease as the number of moderates in her party declines. She has said Republicans “cannot win with just rural, white voters”. Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, has also spoken of the need to strike a different tone on issues such as immigration. Any struggle for the soul of the party over the coming months or years is likely to play out along these lines.

Fiscal message

There are those who point out that, despite its defeat, the party’s message of fiscal restraint and small government was persuasive. It secured just under half of the national vote. Its problems, they say, have more to do with the perception of it as being too white and elitist.

Pauline Olvera, a vice-chair of the Republican Party in Denver – whose grandparents came from Mexico – argues, for example, that Hispanics, with their conservative values and ethic of hard work, are really Republicans at heart. They just don’t realise it yet.

Ultimately, these are very uncertain times in America. There is a deep anxiety about what future awaits the country’s middle class. Many of the core assumptions of US life – that hard work yields results, that responsibility will be rewarded and that a brighter tomorrow lies around the corner – are being shaken.

A rapid fall-off in well-paid manufacturing jobs, replaced by low-paid service-industry jobs with fewer healthcare or pension benefits, means many citizens are falling behind and social mobility is stalling.

The presidential election results showed there was a very large constituency of potential voters wary of policies such as mandatory health insurance and redistribution of wealth or of government interference in their lives. Many of these issues chime with large sections of the community, regardless of ethnicity or social class.

The question is whether the Republicans can find the right kind of unifying leader who can reach out across the demographic divide to convince them there is a better route to prosperity.