Despite warnings of some of its wisest strategists, the GOP is racing headlong into a political box canyon – and potential political marginality.
On issue after issue, the GOP has veered far from the mainstream of the American electorate. Worse, they are swimming upstream against a tide of changing demographics – and an electorate with ever-increasing numbers of young voters from the “millennial generation” that polls show is the most progressive generation in half a century.
So far, at least, efforts to “rebrand” the GOP have simply collapsed. And even though most Americans are primarily concerned with jobs and the future of the economy, the GOP leadership in Congress insists on focusing on cultural issues that pander to a narrow segment of the electorate – and are downright unpopular.
They seem to be practicing the politics of “subtraction” – which is not a good plan if you want to achieve an electoral majority.
A quick look at the issue landscape tells the tale.
· Women’s Reproductive Rights. Women constitute more than a majority of the voting electorate and poll after poll shows that women want the right to make their own reproductive choices without interference from predominantly white, male lawmakers. But the GOP has made its campaign to ban abortion job one. And for many GOP lawmakers and activists it’s not just reproductive choice – it’s banning contraception. Really – in 2013.
Whether in state legislatures like Texas, or the House of Representatives in Washington, instead of jobs, the GOP focuses on passing laws that require doctors to insert unwelcome, medically unnecessary ultra-sound devices into women’s vaginas.
Recently, GOP consultant advised Republicans to never utter the word “rape” – but they can’t help themselves. You’d think the spectacular collapses of the Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock Senate campaigns in 2012 would have made the point. But just this week, the sponsor of Texas’ restrictive abortion law, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, explained that after being raped, that “rape kits” are used “clean out” a woman and help protect her from pregnancy. No, Jodie, “rape kits” are used by police to collect evidence to prosecute rapists – not as a primitive form of Plan B – which you presumably oppose.
· Immigration Reform. The fall elections sent an unmistakable message that the GOP will be unable to compete for votes from Hispanics and Asian Americans – two fast-growing components of the new American electorate – if they continue to oppose immigration reform.
Some in the Senate got the message. But there is every bit of evidence that many House Republicans will continue to worry more about their narrow Tea Party base than the long-term ability of the GOP to compete.
Earlier this week, Public Policy Polling (PPP) published a poll of voters in the districts of seven GOP lawmakers who represent competitive districts with sizable Hispanic or Asian American populations. The poll found that, by almost two to one, voters said they would be less likely to vote for the GOP incumbent if they voted against immigration reform.
Just as importantly, by equal numbers, they said that if the GOP blocked immigration reform, they would be less likely to vote for Republicans generally.
That means that if Republicans in the House block immigration reform with a path to citizenship for immigrants, they could likely lose seven of the 17 seats the Democrats need to take over the House. And there are many additional districts where the poll results would likely be the same.
Blocking immigration reform could cost the GOP its House majority, but still – notwithstanding the political cover provided them by pro-immigration Evangelical and business groups, and many GOP Senators -- you see large numbers of House Republican who are dead set against it.
· Climate Change and the Environment. Polling shows that very few issues move “Millennials” more than the threat of climate change. But many in the GOP are oblivious,or down-right anti-science – or they are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Big Oil. The result: they are driving away millennial voters in droves.
Millennials and the public at large support legislation to cut down on greenhouse gases, both because they are concerned with public health and because they correctly understand that renewable energy development underpins the economy of the future.
· Gun Violence. As if reproductive choice wasn’t enough to drive away women voters, most GOP lawmakers have sold their souls to the NRA and oppose commonsense legislation to limit gun violence.
Of course there are big exceptions, like Senator Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania who noticed his state includes massive numbers of suburban women and decided to co-sponsor the Toomey-Manchin bill to create universal background checks.
Now this was not a dangerous political act. Universal background checks are supported by 90% of the American people and even by the majority of gun owners. In fact, another PPP poll showed that – by overwhelming numbers – voters in swing states said they would be more likely to vote for Senators who supported universal background checks and more likely to vote against those who did not. In fact, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona acknowledged that his approval rating had plummeted to the level of “pond scum” after he voted against universal background checks.
But many in the GOP refuse to wake up and smell the coffee, and continue to march in lockstep with the NRA.
· Voter Suppression. You can bet that the truly wise men and women in the GOP were not thrilled when the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. That meant that Republican Members of Congress will be faced with a contentious battle over a replacement Voting Rights Act – probably sponsored by civil rights hero, Congressman John Lewis. Not exactly the kind of “rebranding” they had in mind.
But GOP-controlled states are rushing to put in place more voter suppression measures – attempts to stem the non-existent flood of “voter fraud” -- in many states where the Voting Rights Act had previously stayed their hand.
The problem for the GOP is that their opposition to minority voting rights,and their efforts at voter suppression in 2012, did enormous damage to the GOP brand with all minorities – African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans – and also with suburban women.
And of course the result of their ham-handed attempts at voter suppression wasn’t to reduce the size of the minority vote. Minority voter turnout actually increased, much to Mitt Romney’s election night surprise.
In fact there was a backlash. You had people standing in line to vote in Florida after Barack Obama had been declared the winner election night because they refused to allow the GOP to prevent them from exercising that precious right to vote.
· The Federal Budget. Much to the GOP’s consternation, latest estimates show the near-term federal deficit has shrunk considerably since it ballooned as a result of the Great Recession. That lessens the public appetite for the GOP’s only economic proposal: reducing the deficit.
Add to the mix the growing impacts of the sequester that are now leading to furloughs for 650,000 civilian Defense Department employees, massive cuts to Head Start and a catalogue of other problems.
Now the GOP is contemplating a return to their stupidest political moment: their willingness to hold the American economy hostage to their demands for draconian cuts in Social Security and Medicare in order for them to raise the federal debt ceiling.
The debt ceiling will once again need to be increased this fall, but the GOP shows all signs of reprising their disastrous 2011 debt ceiling battle that alienated massive numbers of voters and a big chunk of their own base in the business community.
And let’s remember that their demands continue to be unpopular cuts in Social Security and the elimination of guaranteed Medicare benefits. Those positions are political kryptonite.
· Nominations and Political Obstruction. Next up in the Senate will be a battle over approving President Obama’s nominees to the Courts, and to run Federal Agencies. GOP Senators have used the filibuster to block up or down votes on scores of appointees.
Blocking up or down votes on nominees in general is not a very popular thing to do, because it sends the message that they just want to obstruct – they want our government to fail. Worse, by blocking nominees to agencies like the EPA they become that much less popular with Millennials and women.
· Health Care. The GOP takes solace from the fact that the electorate remains split on ObamaCare. But the fact is that as more of its provisions take effect, and more and more Americans benefit, it will become more and more popular.
No matter, the GOP will go all out this fall to stoke opposition to ObamaCare because many of their backers want to show that significant progressive initiatives of any sort are doomed to failure.
If Progressives and the Obama Administration counter that attack, it will ultimately be one more losing battle for the GOP – and history will not be kind to the GOP.
· The Economy. Finally, of course there’s “the economy, stupid” – the thing people care about more than any other.
Quite apart from the fact that the GOP’s only economic proposal -- their tired mantra about cutting taxes and deficits -- has less and less appeal as deficits shrink. The GOP is actively standing in the way of proposals to improve the economic prospects of everyday middle class Americans.
Late this year or early next, Democrats in Congress, the Obama Administration and progressive organizations will launch a campaign to raise the minimum wage. Overwhelming numbers of Americans agree that if you work 40 hours a week you shouldn’t live in poverty. But as usual, the much of the GOP will stand in opposition.
In fact, a good case can be made that the GOP has spent the last five years actively trying to sabotage the economic recovery. Many Americans bought that case in last year’s Presidential elections and made it very clear that they support the progressive view that economies grow from the bottom up – not the top down.
With every one of these major issues, the GOP is on the politically losing side.
But in the House at least, the leadership has some escape routes that could ameliorate these problems.
Instead of the “Hastert Rule” that requires that a majority of the GOP majority support a measure before it is allowed on the floor for a vote, the Speaker could use the “Boehner Rule.” He has used the “Boehner Rule” in every major instance this year where the House actually passed legislation that has been signed into law. It requires only that before a bill comes to the floor, that a majority of GOP lawmakers either support the bill or are part of the “vote no, pray yes” caucus. In these cases a majority of the Republican Caucus decides that even though they might not vote “yes” they think a bill (like the Fiscal Cliff tax increase on the rich) has to pass anyway – and support Leadership action to bring the bill to the floor and allow the House “to work its will.”
Boehner would be especially smart to use the “Boehner Rule” when it comes to immigration reform, since the GOP Caucus simply can’t afford for Hispanics and Asian Americans to see them as the party that blocked reform.
Another likely candidate for the “Boehner Rule” would be the hugely popular proposal for universal background checks for gun purchases.
We’ll see what Boehner, Cantor and the rest of the GOP leadership do in the months ahead. But right now they are riding fast in to a political box canyon from which there is very little opportunity for escape.