The Grand Old Problem
President Obama has been reelected to a second term, bringing the lengthy and often nauseating 2012 election to a sound close. As of this writing, President Obama managed to bag all the states he won in 2008, except for Indiana and North Carolina (while it seems like Florida will also go to Obama, they’re still counting votes — no surprises there…). In other words, despite the lengthy and anemic recovery and perhaps the worst gridlock in Washington in recent history, Romney only managed to steal two relatively small states (by Electoral College standards) out of Obama’s landslide 2008 column.
For the Republican Party, this is a problem. Not just in the sense that it will be the opposition party for another four years. Oh no, this highlights serious and fundamental problems within the ideology, composition, and platform of the Republican Party.
Even though the Republican primaries managed to nominate one of the most centrist candidates (by overall measures of ideology and past record of governance) out of the entire nomination field, Romney was unable to maintain his center-right status because of the rigors of the primary campaigns. The GOP base is still very conservative, both fiscally and socially, and it made it very clear that no candidate who did not hold solidly conservative positions on every issue would receive its approval. Often times, the quest of the party faithful was to find the single most conservative candidate to duke it out with Romney, but in the process, the governor was forced to sell himself, as he put it, as “severely conservative”. Among his severely conservative résumé was what was often seen as the most hard-right stance on illegal immigration and the question of amnesty for illegals currently in the country; Romney took a no holds barred approach to this, arguing that strict border enforcement was needed and that no amnesty should be given to illegal immigrants but rather that they should so thoroughly be denied opportunity here that they decide to return to their home nation (aka, self-deportation). Considering the growth of the Hispanic electorate, such a hard-line stance doomed Romney with Hispanic voters (we will see exactly to what extent as the national vote is broken down in the coming weeks), and while it is certainly true that Hispanics care about more issues than just illegal immigration, it remains nonetheless an issue in which Hispanics have a vested interest. Simply put, the GOP will need to reach out to Hispanic voters in a meaningful way; perhaps a start could be to champion and pass the DREAM Act under the auspice that Obama’s short-term (and arguably monarchical) knockoff is insufficient. The GOP will not need to win over the majority of Hispanics, but to remain competitive nationally in the coming decades, it will need to prevent the Hispanic voting bloc from going the route of the Black voting bloc (i.e., nearly 100 percent Democratic in any given election).
Romney likewise adopted the party policies of opposing gay marriage and abortion (although he differed from the official party platform in that he argued for exceptions for abortion in the case of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is threatened). While both sides of the abortion debate still seem to be more or less evenly matched, gay marriage is quite another story – the tide has turned on the issue, driven by growing societal acceptance of homosexuality and a youth demographic that simply does not hold the prejudices and views of their elders. One can only expect the movement for gay marriage to expand in coming years, and with the shrinking influence of evangelicals and the Religious Right in general, this is an issue that the GOP will have to do some serious soul-searching on before the next election (ideally even sooner, before primary season kicks into gear again). Looking ahead to 2016, expect an ideological battle within the GOP, with likely three main approaches emerging: No change in the gay marriage stance (consistent to traditional and religious principles, but likely unsustainable), a true apathy on the issue and the intention to leave it solely up to every state to decide (this would not win over any voters who actually support gay marriage and such an approach could very possibly be nullified by a future Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia-style), and of course outright support for gay marriage (which is simply something that the Religious Right will not accept). You can see where this will get the party into quite a pickle; attempts to reach out to centrists and youth will either be rejected by said groups and/or they will firmly alienate Christian conservatives, whose electoral power is in decline but still forms a base of support that the GOP cannot reasonably forsake. The GOP cannot give up its conservative base wholesale in the quest for new demographics because the Democratic Party likewise spars for the voters in the middle. To be competitive in our political system, a party has to have a base so firmly entrenched in its own camp that the other side does not even bother trying to sway it.
Now of course, such problems for the Republican Party do not mean the Democratic Party can rest on its laurels – far from it. The liberal base of the Democratic Party fully and unequivocally rallied around Obama following his historic announcement of support for gay marriage, but looking ahead to 2016, one cannot expect would-be Democratic nominees to run in exactly the same shoes as Obama. The liberal base has serious qualms regarding Obama’s strategy of war by drones, and one can expect the base to put their candidates through a similar (but of course, ideologically opposite) round of litmus tests, leading to a candidate who will likely be just as progressive as then-candidate Obama was in 2008. Naturally, candidate Obama was able to overwhelmingly woo not only the political middle but also make serious inroads to traditionally Republican demographics because of the utter failure and unpopularity of the Bush Administration. He was then able to make enough of a shift to the center (at least much more so than Romney) to be able to easily win reelection. However, one wonders how the country will compare the likely left-wing Democratic candidate with a Republican candidate who, as shown above, will have to be centrist not only in the general election but through the primary campaign as well.
But all speculation aside, this election proves one thing above all else: For better or for worse, America has changed and will continue to do so. The (pun intended) elephant in the room, however, is whether the GOP will be able to as well.