The presidential election may be over, but the debate continues as to why the GOP received such a “severe butt-thumping,” as one popular pundit recently noted. Few Democratic incumbents in the House were unseated, and Democratic gains were recorded in both the House and the Senate. By all accounts, Republicans were poised to win nearly all contests by respectable margins, but something happened on the way to the ballot box—Americans voted their consciences and refused to be swayed by “dirty tricks.”
For the past week, Republican soul-searching has been on national display. Responses have run the gamut, from blaming the loss on Hurricane Sandy to sadly admitting that the GOP’s primary message is out of touch with changing demographics in the electorate. The party mouthpieces have been reluctant to accept the latter argument, choosing rather to criticize Mitt Romney as not being conservative enough. Inventing clever rationalizations designed to make the GOP base feel better is not a worthwhile activity either. Change from the top down is called for, if the GOP is to be a relevant force in future political discussions.
Party conservatives still want to believe that bad luck had everything to do with Tuesday’s poor outcome. The circumstances favored a Republican victory, yet their landslide never materialized. Single women, African Americans, Hispanics and people under 30 voted Democratic in overwhelming numbers. Yes, older white men rejected the Democratic ticket out of hand, but this segment of our population is losing its influence, as other demographic groups expand their numbers over time.
Regardless of the margins, the majority of experts expect the Republican Party to drop all pretenses. Public acceptability, both now and in the future, is at stake. The GOP “message” is not resonating with the general public. Extreme ideas from the far right are alienating voters right and left, and cosmetic changes will not save the day. To become vital once more, the GOP must remove the cancers that retard its acceptability and move toward building a new coalition, substituting winners for losers.
No one is suggesting that severe surgery is the answer. But people expect changes they can support, not “lipstick on the pig” or prettier sheep’s clothing on the wolf. Fiscal conservatism is praised in most quarters, but voucherizing Medicare or individualizing Social Security are not approaches that favor certainty or future financial security for millions of Americans. Each approach may make accountants smile, but when was the last time that a number cruncher won a popularity contest? Social conservatism, however, has become overly intrusive and threatens personal liberty, a value that has traditionally been a mainstay of the GOP.
Our democratic system of government needs a viable second party. Single-party rule rarely leads to anything worthwhile without healthy criticism and alternative views from the opposition. Today’s deadlock could easily lead to a third party, spinning away from the herd and made up of more moderate, middle-of-the-road constituents. Both major parties would then have to woo this group effectively to get anything done. There is another way for the GOP, but it resembles the common three-step grieving process.
Step 1: Shock and denial
Shock helps us cope with the pain that generally accompanies an emotional blow. Denial quickly follows to numb our senses, protecting us from the reality of it all. It is time for Republicans to come out of denial. Delaying the process only makes it worse. One in eight voters may believe in conservative values, but seven in eight do not. If your only way to make up the difference is to use spin, demonize the opposition, or expect lies to win the day, then it is time to wake up. More conservatism is not the answer. Out-of-date solutions that worked decades ago, like tax cuts and increased military spending, have no basis in today’s world of globalization and outsourcing.
Step 2: Anger, fear and sadness
When reality sets in, the crucial mourning phase begins. All emotions must be felt before the healing can begin. The far right has the “anger” part down, but the argument is lost at the outset if you begin shouting at your prospective supporter. Fear has far too often driven Republicans to employ fear as a weapon, but the electorate today and tomorrow wants a message of hope and opportunity for all citizens, not a selected few. Dispensing with “makers and takers” philosophies will also end “class warfare” acrimony as well. There is no reason to feel sadness when dropping old friends. There are always new ones to attract.
Step 3: Understanding and acceptance
Unfortunately, many of us get stuck in one of these first two stages, never dropping the blame game and continuing to agonize over what could have been. Accepting reality is a prerequisite to moving on and surviving. Resolution is the result of completing this phase, but the first two phases must be completed or the loss will remain unresolved and linger indefinitely. Part of the cathartic process is to review the past and to rescue those good qualities that got pushed aside along the way. Embrace the good qualities, accept independent research as a guide and modify your basic message.
Republicans, as David Brooks declared in a recent piece in the New York Times, have always represented the party of work. A strong work ethic is a major underpinning of all cultures, with no exceptions. Celebrate work, and help people transform their lives. To purport otherwise is hopelessly out of touch, regardless of what conservative talking heads may spout daily. Our land is a land of immigrants, the only one on the planet. We may disagree and argue, but we all want a legitimate chance to prove our mettle.
This election reiterated that Americans do not support extremely conservative views. As, the late coach of UCLA fame, espoused, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” For all Republicans, it is time to grieve, reinvent and move on! Lean forward!
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