Republicans in the Wilderness

By Andrew Gabel

Elections have a way of making the present seem perennial and the future inevitable. Who can forget the President Bush’s “permanent Republican majority” predicted after his 2004 victory, only to be followed by the “permanent Democratic majority” theory used to help explain Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008? Of course this “emerging Democratic majority” contention of 2008 was then promptly disproved in the 2010 midterm elections, according to many pundits at the time, but now has fallen back in light of Obama’s 2012 victory. Simply put, every election cycle since 2004 has been used by the victorious party as proof of an impending and everlasting dominance.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Romney had barely finished his concession speech on election night when these same pundits already begin writing the epitaph of the Republican Party: too old, too white and too out-of-touch. This past election has indeed exposed key vulnerabilities for the GOP. For example, Romney won independents by 10 points in critical Ohio only to lose the state due to minority turnout. Across the country, the picture was similar: losing youth (60 to 37 percent overall) and minorities (Blacks 93 to 7 percent, Hispanics 71 to 29 percent) by margins even winning independents cannot overcome. Furthermore, in consideration of the fact that Romney surpassed McCain in the final vote tally, the myth of “the missing Republican voter” (a theory that pinned Romney’s loss on Republicans’ purported absence at the polls) can finally be shattered once and for all. The bottom line is that President Obama received significantly fewer votes than he did in 2008; Romney received more than McCain did in 2008 and the Republicans still lost (and lost handily). That signals structural weakness.

Perhaps more disconcerting for the GOP is the fact that Romney actually ran ahead of many Republican senatorial candidates. Lest anyone rush to blame the Tea Party and Todd Akin, so-called “establishment” candidates ran campaigns equally futile to those of their Tea Party counterparts with both losing big on election night. The monumental failure of Republicans across the board suggests the problem goes beyond a single candidate, campaign strategy or even policy. Any time a party is chucked into the wilderness as the GOP was on Nov. 6, it is incumbent upon that party to engage in a healthy bout of soul-searching. That is the job of Republicans right now as a marginalized opposition party with little power or influence: to figure out went wrong, fix it and come roaring back in 2014 and 2016.

The good news is that, perhaps surprisingly, the GOP has a lot going for it. Unlike the Democratic Party, the Republicans have an exceptionally strong bench. Young, dynamic leaders such as Representative Paul Ryan (WI), Senator Marco Rubio (FL) and Governor Bobby Jindal (LA) have shown themselves to be strikingly effective agents of change in their respective positions. All are articulate, knowledgeable and, importantly, untainted by the Bush years (Ryan has served in the House since 1998 but was essentially a backbencher until 2008).

In some ways, it is remarkable the party coalesced around Romney the way it did considering how long, bloody and unsatisfying the Republican primary saga proved to be. On the trail, Romney showed himself to be a clunky campaigner who spoke conservatism as a second language (once referring to himself as “severely” conservative) and who never was quite able to make the philosophical case for free-markets, personal responsibility and a strong national defense. The GOP’s 2016 presidential candidate, whoever it may be, will have no such problem. If the 2016 candidate — who may very well be a Hispanic or Indian-American — can make even a small dent in Romney’s 2012 minority and youth numbers, it will have enormous significance. Essentially, Republicans don’t need to win these demographics and they likely never will; all they need is to do a little better than Romney did and they suddenly become competitive as a party again.

Additionally, Republicans ran an antiquated and at times incompetent (see: Project ORCA and the Republican National Convention) campaign this past cycle. This was in stark contrast to the Obama campaign, which took full advantage of cutting-edge information technology and used it to run an unprecedented data-driven effort. Do not expect such a strong discrepancy going forward. A new crop of young GOP consultants is waiting in the wings, who are frustrated with the Romney campaign’s television-oriented strategic backwardness and who understand that times have changed since 2004. By 2016, they will be more fully established and, in all likelihood, running the show.

Yet perhaps the greatest advantage Republicans have relative to Democrats over the next few years is on substance. Politically, nothing is inevitable. The same cannot be said for America’s perilous fiscal situation. The fact of the matter is that, whether politicians want to acknowledge it or not, the United States is accelerating towards a sovereign debt crisis. In layman’s terms, because of America’s reckless spending, there is doubt about the government’s ability to pay back its debt and as such investors will eventually stop buying American bonds because they will be considered such risky assets. When this happens, the Federal Reserve will likely make up the difference by printing money. This eventually leads to inflation or hyperinflation, rendering all dollar-denominated assets greatly diminished in value. Such a scenario would wreak havoc on the United States economy, wiping out life savings and making everyday necessities skyrocket in price. Simply put, if nothing is done to change the current U.S. fiscal trajectory, these things will result.
America is rapidly approaching a tipping point and only the Republican Party has taken this issue seriously. For all its problems politically and otherwise, Republicans have been the only party to sound the alarm and offer serious policy solutions that address the true drivers of the national debt — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security; these three programs along with welfare and interest on the compromise roughly 60 percent of expenditures and are projected rise significantly beyond that in the coming years. Thus far, all President Obama and Democrats have offered in return is demagoguery. Raising taxes on the “rich” would solve nothing; even confiscating every penny of those making over $250,000 a year would only generate a one-time $938 billion in revenue, against a yearly deficit that is $1.5 trillion and a debt that stands at $16 trillion. Likewise, cutting defense is no solution; defense spending comprises less than 20 percent of our budget and, as a percentage of our economic output, is at near-historic lows hovering steadily at around four percent. In addition to having no meaningful impact on our debt or deficit and potentially leaving us weakened and vulnerable, such policies could cripple an already fragile recovery and simply not serious solutions. Also of note is the fact that interest rates are essentially at zero percent right now. Even a small increase can explode an already-unaffordable debt. What this means is that the U.S. government, in addition to living off of borrowed money, is also living on borrowed time.

Barring an unexpected fiscal “grand bargain” that, in D.C.’s current polarized political climate, seems frankly fanciful, there appears to be little reason for optimism. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has called the coming fiscal storm, “the most predictable economic crisis in history.” He is right, and when the looming debt crisis becomes the actual debt crisis the party of profligacy and denial — in this case the Democrats — will instantly lose their credibility. Republicans must therefore continue to hold the line on fiscal discipline, not only because it represents the only hope to avoid an economic meltdown, but because it also serves their long term political interest. Like Churchill in 1940, they may very well be swept into power by the calamity they sought to prevent.

The GOP took a drubbing this November. The status quo is a losing hand for them and absent reform they will continue to lose. But four years is an eternity in Washington. Republicans have plenty of time reinvent themselves and, once again, become competitive on a national scale. Is it possible that the Grand Old Party is in terminal, irreversible decline? Yes, but color me skeptical.

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