When a runaway train screams down a mountain, jumps the track and crumples into a mangled pile of smoking steel, experts gather to pick through the wreckage, hunt for survivors and determine what went wrong. So it will go with the Republican Party after Election Day, and the post-mortem won’t be pretty.
Consider the disastrous state of affairs besetting the GOP:
▪ Its leaders have lost all credibility by refusing to disavow Donald Trump until 11th hour disclosures made their silence untenable.
▪ Its platform reflects a complete disconnect from the changing complexion of the American electorate.
▪ Its multiple factions are at war with each other and locked in a blame game over how Republicanism got hijacked in 2016.
▪ And its nominee is an ignorant, bigoted demagogue who brags about sexually assaulting women – and will win the votes of millions of Americans, even as he goes down in defeat.
Where does the Republican Party go from here?
One thing is certain: this is not the time for a minor makeover. After President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, the GOP conducted an “autopsy” to figure out how to avoid electoral irrelevance. If some soul-searching was in order back then, the party needs electroshock therapy today.
The good news is that history suggests recovery is not just possible, but likely. As political scientist Julia Azari recently observed in Politico Magazine, the Republican Party, unlike its counterpart, began as a party of ideology, formed in the 1850s with “a specific guiding principle in mind: stopping the expansion of slavery.” Ever since, Azari argues, the GOP has been “prone to ideological fights blowing up into potential existential crises.”
One such moment, Azari notes, came amid the Great Depression. With Republican President Herbert Hoover on the hook for widespread American suffering, the party lost 182 House seats and 40 Senate seats in four elections from 1930 through 1936. At their 1936 national convention, anguished Republicans were deeply divided over how to counter Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s popular New Deal programs and reassert their bona fides as a trustworthy political force.
The GOP found itself on the ropes again in the mid-1970s, after Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office and his successor, Gerald R. Ford, pardoned him despite the Watergate scandal. Republicans’ efforts to revive their brand could not save Ford, who fell to Jimmy Carter in 1976, but the party rebounded with a new electoral coalition and a victory for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
More recently, the tea party revolt set off a bitter civil war within the GOP and sowed seeds for Trump’s success. With their extreme distrust of government, raw Obama hatred and passionate populism, the tea partiers embodied the growing anti-establishment fervor cleaving the GOP. And their astonishing takedown of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia in 2014 proved they could not be ignored.
But this year of electoral insanity makes the party’s previous calamities seem almost quaint. Trump’s ascension is the ultimate curve ball, and he has obliterated the GOP playbook while showing complete disregard for the core principles that have endured to bind Republicans together for 160 years.
As David Brooks of The New York Times so aptly put it after the Republican National Convention, the GOP now “is less a party than a personality cult.”
So what is the way forward? How can Republicans stitch the tattered threads of our once great party into something meaningful and worthy of Americans’ support, something resembling that elusive big tent?
It will be a profoundly difficult task.
As I see it, the most promising approach begins with a thunderous defeat for Trump. Such a result would repudiate the hateful, fear-mongering essence of his politics and allow saner, smarter voices to rise.
Some leaders will push the party to hold onto voters wooed by Trump’s xenophobic, “Make America Great Again” prescription for our country, the one that appeals to folks who resent the more ethnically and culturally diverse place that the United States is becoming.
I disagree. Many of these voters were enflamed by legitimate problems Republicans should address. But the ethno-nationalistic impulses that characterize their lot and find expression in proposals for mass deportations, Muslim bans and a border wall? These have no place in the Party of Lincoln and must be rejected.
Instead, the GOP should reassert its appeal through the pillars that have stood in good stead for generations – free enterprise, individual responsibility and limited government – while becoming a party of solutions, rather than one focused on obstructionism and demonizing Democrats.
It also must retool its message for 21st century America. Over the past 20 years, the country has become more ethnically diverse, more culturally progressive and more educated, and hordes of millennials have reached voting age. The GOP, meanwhile, has shown no evidence of this shift, remaining a party that is blindingly white, less educated and older.
Republican leaders acknowledged this dilemma in its 100-page autopsy report in 2012. Sally Bradshaw, a Florida GOP strategist and project co-chair, noted that, “Public perception of our party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents and many minorities think Republicans don't like them or don't want them in our country.”
Trump’s success – and Republican leaders’ willingness to support him until the bitter end – has only made this worse, driving away every key demographic the GOP needs to win national elections.
To counter this problem and expand its base, the party must deemphasize its social conservative agenda, especially its war on gay rights, and send a message of inclusion, rather than exclusion.
The party should also fortify and trumpet its strength at the state and local levels. Already, Republicans hold the governor’s office in 31 states (Democrats hold 18) and control legislatures in 23 states (Democrats control just eight). These are important numbers, especially given the greater impact state politics have on people’s everyday lives.
Finally, the GOP also must be willing to use its resources to defeat candidates who carry destructive messages. One successful example of this came in 2012, when GOP organizations openly renounced Missouri U.S. Senate hopeful Todd Akin over his controversial comments on rape and abortion, dooming his candidacy.
Will any of this be easy? No. When a narcissistic nominee with no integrity, policy agenda or scruples drags you into the sewer, climbing back to higher ground is no small feat.
But climb we must. History proves a Republican reboot and resurgence are possible. And the alternative is no alternative at all.
Doug Elmets is president of Sacramento-based Elmets Communications. He has worked on four Republican presidential campaigns but is supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.