Republican Recovery

Further musings on the future of the Grand Old Party.

In the subheading of yesterday morning’s post “The Republican Party’s Shame,” I observe, “The Party of Lincoln went over the cliff like lemmings in support. It’s tough to see how they recover.” Steven Taylor rejoined that “The Republicans are Going Nowhere” because the structures of our electoral system give them little incentive to reform.

Because I didn’t actually explain what I meant by the claim in the subhed—which was more a wistfulness for a responsible conservative party than a fully-formed argument— Steven naturally filled in the blanks. There’s nothing of substance in his post I disagree with. While he’s been somewhat more frustrated than me by the situation, we both agree that it’s much easier for Republicans to win the Presidency, the House, and the Senate with less-than-plurality support than it is for Democrats; indeed, the latter is next to inconceivable under the current party alignment.

Yes, Republicans won the White House in 2000 and 2016 despite winning fewer popular votes than the Democratic nominee. In 2016, they did so winning nearly three million fewer votes. And it wouldn’t have taken a massive shift in votes for Trump to have been re-elected in 2020 even though his Democratic opponent drew six million more votes.

But, at the same time, we focus on that to the exclusion of the bigger picture. The GOP has become a permanent minority party. It went from winning landslides in most elections from 1968 to 1988 to winning a plurality of the votes only one since. Winning in 2000 and 2016 required the electoral equivalent of drawing an inside straight (and, while Bush won re-election in 2004 fairly comfortably, he wouldn’t have been the nominee had he lost in 2000).

While 2020 was closer than the polls showed—and, significantly, didn’t produce a blue wave to give Biden strong control of both Houses of Congress—the Upper Midwest swung back Democratic; once-Red Virginia voted Blue for the fourth consecutive cycle; Georgia and Arizona flipped Blue; and Texas and North Carolina were competitive.

Steven is right that it’s next to inconceivable that the Republican Party casts off the Trumpers—they’re now the strong majority—or that the Romney-Kasich-Hogan wing spins off into a viable new party. But that means, effectively, that the NeverTrump Republicans of today will be like the Reagan Democrats of 1980: part of a realignment.

While I don’t expect the Republicans in Deep Red states or districts to be punished for aiding and abetting Trump’s assault on our democracy, I think they’ve sustained long-term damage to their brand that makes it next to impossible to appeal to swing voters in 2024 and beyond. Further, their rank hypocrisy during the Trump era has rendered them ineffective even as an opposition party. They’ll be able to do what their power enables them to do in stopping Biden’s policy initiatives but they’ll have an incredibly tough time mounting a persuasive argument.

We’ve certainly seen multiple requiems for both of the major parties over the time I’ve closely followed American politics. Most notably, the Democrats lost every Presidential election between 1968 and 1988 save one (and that was close despite Watergate, stagflation, and a candidate who not only would never been nominated to lead a major party ticket but had the baggage of pardoning Nixon). It took both a new ideological message and a generational talent at the head of the ticket to right the ship.

But I don’t see the prospect of anything like that on the horizon for the GOP. For reasons Steven articulated, they don’t have reason to think they need to fix anything (except perhaps for nominating a steadier figure than Trump). More importantly, they’ve more-or-less chased off all the intellectuals. So, likely the best thing they can hope for is to put together a populist message that’s less obviously racist in order to peel off more Black and Latino working class men.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. charon says:

    I see California as the model – solid control of the rural areas, non-competitive for the Presidency, with some lingering competitiveness in Congress from the gerrymanders.

    Other than that, WYSIWYG: God, Guns and Jim Crow.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Steven is right that it’s next to inconceivable that the Republican Party casts off the Trumpers—they’re now the strong majority—or that the Romney-Kasich-Hogan wing spins off into a viable new party.

    What I wonder, and only time will tell, is how much drop off in GOP turnout will there be when trump is no longer at the top of the ticket. I don’t see anybody else capable of whipping the cult into a frenzy.

    FTR, as incoherent as he’s been in 2020, I don’t expect him back in 2024. Mental decline only accelerates, and too many people with far greater exposure to him over the years than I have ever had have said he’s lost a lot already.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    James, I think you haven’t dealt with the fundamental question: what would a reformed Republican Party stand for? I suspect that if you paint a picture of the ideal party, you would have to agree it would be more likely created by the Democrats splitting into two factions. And that is fine. As long as we get the benefits of a contest of ideals it doesn’t matter much what label the factions choose.

    You and I have had this argument before. I can’t understand why people invest in a party. To me, choosing a party or a candidate is like choosing a plumber or a dentist. They are not my “team”, and if they can no longer deliver I’ll look for someone competent to take their place. Actually, the dentist is a good example, as I personally like my dentist, but if he started wrecking my teeth I would stop going to him, however bad I felt for him. The Republican Party of today is in a downward spiral, attracting negative, bigoted and irrational people, which in turn drives away the decent people. Could someday a decent coalition arise that takes over the husk of the party and repurpose it to be a positive force? Sure. But the only connection to the Republican Party of today will be its name.

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    @MarkedMan:

    James, I think you haven’t dealt with the fundamental question: what would a reformed Republican Party stand for?

    On point. Exactly. Part of the reason the GOP has become the American Fascist Party is that so-called conservative ideology has crashed and burned. It’s not just that they’ve lost on every social issue, it’s that their economic world view is simple wrong. Their ideology died from exposure to facts.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan:

    James, I think you haven’t dealt with the fundamental question: what would a reformed Republican Party stand for? […] Could someday a decent coalition arise that takes over the husk of the party and repurpose it to be a positive force? Sure. But the only connection to the Republican Party of today will be its name.

    That’s simply the nature of a two-party system. The Republican Party of 1860 had next to nothing in common with that of 1980 and ditto that party and the one of 2020. Indeed, the Democrats and Republicans have essentially switched positions since 1860.

    I’m just looking for a viable center-right party to emerge. Right now, it’s a quasi-populist, nationalist party with no real ideas.

    There are huge swaths of the current GOP coalition who despise Trumpism but who go along because they see the alternative as “socialism.” And there are large swatchs of the Biden coalition who would likely prefer a Larry Hogan to Bernie Sanders/AOC party. A viable party could meld these folks.

    The point of the post is I don’t know how we get there.

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  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    The point of the post is I don’t know how we get there.

    It has been about a 150 years since a major party has faded out and was subsumed by another or new party, I’m thinking of the Whigs and Federalists. We’ve had the Rs and Dems for as the major parties since that time and as you pointed out, they’ve effectively switched world view. Given the staying power of these parties, and the incentives of the electoral structure, I don’t see how a third party develops. Going forward, what has been the R elite will have 3 choices, make peace with populism/nationalism, become Dems or forsake political influence, except at the ballot box and be independents.

    In the day of machine politics, it was possible for the elites and other political leaders to make the kind of decisions that could create a new party, but not in today’s grassroots driven politics. The failure of the Reform Party, despite some ballot box success and the struggle of the Green Party to be relevant, even though their platform has a lot of appeal to progressives, shows how difficult it is.

    The forecast for the next few cycles is a shrinking R party that remains relevant due to electoral structure and likely more extreme minoritarian rule.

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  7. Steven naturally filled in the blanks.

    It made for a good jumping-off point for a post 🙂

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  8. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m just looking for a viable center-right party to emerge.

    We have one. It’s called “The Democratic Party”. By any objective measure, the policies pursued and legislation enacted by the Dems for the past 30 years have been firmly “center right”.

    What specific “center right” causes would you want your ideal party to pursue, that the Dems have not?

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  9. reid says:

    @DrDaveT: Yes, I’m wondering what is it about the Democratic platform that JJ is so against? I suppose it’s easy to focus on the far-left part of the party, but the bulk of the party does seem center-left. Even the far-left part has ideas that I think are good.

    I get caught up in the daily political warfare and stupidity like everyone, so it’d be interesting to hear about actual policy issues for once.

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  10. reid says:

    @reid: And I notice that DrDaveT actually called them center-right, which they are in a lot of ways. On foreign policy, they don’t seem all that much different from Republicans of yesteryear, for example. (We all know this, I understand.)

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  11. Tim D. says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “conservative ideology has crashed and burned”

    I’ve always liked the idea that Trump represents the disjunctive end of the Reagan era, just as Carter was the dying gasp of the New Deal coalition. The problem is that the major problems facing the nation require smart, fact-driven government, and the general intellectual orientation of Reaganism (“govt is the problem”) is simply no longer helpful in 2020 — either as politics or as policy.

    Republicans simply have nothing to say on health care or climate change or income inequality or the pandemic. There simply is no “small govt” solution to those problems, and the electorate is demanding answers.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    @Tim D.:

    Republicans simply have nothing to say on health care or climate change or income inequality or the pandemic. There simply is no “small govt” solution to those problems, and the electorate is demanding answers.

    You could deny they exist, and people who value slogans over solutions would believe you, as we have seen.

    Republicans have gone from the adage of “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” to “if all you have is a hammer, screws are a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.”

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  13. Tim D. says:

    @Gustopher: “You could deny they exist, and people who value slogans over solutions would believe you, as we have seen.”

    Yep. And it helps to have a well-funded propaganda network handy to maintain the illusion. But how long can you run a major political party fueled only by conspiracy theories? Unfortunately, the answer might be: long enough to cook a planet.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @reid: As a person who was “an independent” (i.e. a solidly Republican voter on local level candidates, who voted 3rd party nationally for 9 cycles), I can tell you with confidence that the rejection of Democrats as “center-right” is mostly visceral. Where I lived, the left was alive and well as largely pseudo-Marxist/progressives when I was young and I simply never adjusted to it beyond wishing for some of the progressive outcomes as I got older and eventually abandoning conservatism because I saw that the small parts of the conservative agenda that I was in favor of (more balanced budgets, deliberative processes for spending priorities, fiscal “restraint” [yeah, right] and such) were only branding exercises meant to attract my attention, not actual policy goals.

    Since, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is not in the ideologies, rather in the character of those expounding them. Want better government? Figure out how to get better voters.

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Republicans have gone from the adage of “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” to “if all you have is a hammer, screws are a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.”

    ROFLMAO. 😀

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  16. dazedandconfused says:

    I tend to agree but might beg to quibble with the assertion the current GOP is now a permanent minority party. They picked up seats in the House and will probably maintain a majority in the Senate with what is arguably the worst POTUS in US history as their leader.
    If the Ds wish to make the Rs that permanent minority they must go beyind chastisement and address to the underlying issues which fuels this brand of populism, which means they must not dismiss this new R demographic as a bunch racist clowns. OK…yeah, some of them are…hilariously so…but the wise refrain from nut-picking.

    I suggest they are, to some degree, victims of the same sort of poor self-labeling as in “de-fund the police”. The root cause of public discontent often isn’t the crowd-chant.

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  17. reid says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Yeah, I figure a lot of it is habit and opinions formed decades ago, if you’re a certain age. I’m 52 and formed some of my political opinions during the Reagan admin, so I was at least open to both parties; the nonsense during the Bill Clinton years followed by Bush Jr. was enough to make me re-think things. Everything that has happened since has only solidified it.

    Yeah, we need better/smarter/more informed voters. But for those people that are open-minded like our host, I wonder what actual policies he still values that are to the right of the Democrats. I know he’s in favor of a universal health care plan, for example. (Me too.)

  18. MarkedMan says:

    For me the whole thing is much simpler than finding a party that represents my values. Formerly, I decided on the things that are most important to me and looked for the individuals most likely to advance those causes. Locally, that would be the people willing to stand up to developers where necessary and also willing to be realistic when it came for the need to have an actual tax base in a community, and stand up to the NIMBYs. Nationally it is usually bigger issues and statewide somewhere in between. But around the time of GWB I decided the Republican Party was simply too toxic, and assumed that anyone that aligned themselves with the GOP was crazy, corrupt, pining for a past that no longer existed, or a combination of all three.

    Now that I live in Baltimore there is real choice in the Democratic primaries. At the State and National level, not so much and I often find myself wishing for someone better. But I don’t vote for a Republican because the Dennis disappointing. The modern Republicans are toxic and bring nothing but misery when they gain control.

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  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: There are huge swaths of the current GOP coalition who despise Trumpism but who go along because they see the alternative as “socialism.”

    And most of them haven’t got a clue as to what socialism is, they think it is “anything the DEM party is in favor of.” And you think these are the base of a new sane political middle?

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  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @dazedandconfused: I tend to agree but might beg to quibble with the assertion the current GOP is now a permanent minority party. They picked up seats in the House and will probably maintain a majority in the Senate with what is arguably the worst POTUS in US history as their leader.

    Yes they did, but they did it with a minority of voters.

  21. DrDaveT says:

    @Tim D.:

    But how long can you run a major political party fueled only by conspiracy theories?

    We are, alas, about to find out.

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  22. Michael Cain says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Yes they did, but they did it with a minority of voters.

    The Wisconsin gerrymander case that got to the Supreme Court was, in some ways, fascinating. The state Democratic Party conceded that there was a 7% natural gerrymander because Democratic voters voluntarily packed themselves into a small number of urban areas, and preferred to have those areas kept intact to the degree possible. Paraphrasing, “We’re not complaining because we got 53% of the votes statewide and didn’t get half of the seats. We’re complaining because we got 57% of the votes statewide and still didn’t get half the seats.”

    Relatedly, Democrats win Colorado’s 1st district by roughly 80/20. Very few Democratic voters there are willing to give up a seat completely dominated by Denver regardless of how it affects the number of seats won statewide.

  23. michilines says:

    @dazedandconfused: There are real problems is mid-sized to smaller communities with police not living within the jurisdictions that they police. The salaries are paid out of the local city or country, but the money goes to officers living in other cities or counties. And it’s not just their current salaries, it’s also funding their pensions, which police get much earlier than almost all Americans. It’s a drain on resources that has not been addressed. And yeah, the police departments gouge the locals through petty fines and impossible penalties, but defund the police is worse than defund the communities.