It is the nature of resilient institutions to take stock of new realities and adjust accordingly. In a new cover essay for Commentary magazine, Peter Wehner and I detail the examples of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Clinton broke a long Democratic presidential losing streak by emphasizing middle-class values, advocating the end of “welfare as we know it” and standing up to extreme elements within his coalition (thereby creating the “Sister Souljah moment”). In Britain, Blair went after the “moral chaos” that led to youth crime, abandoned his party’s official commitment to public ownership of the means of production and launched New Labor.
The Republican Party now needs similar transformation. Out of the past six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 211 for the Republican. During the preceding two decades, from 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to Democrats’ 113.
This stunning reversal of electoral fortunes has taken place for a variety of reasons: changing demographics; the end of a GOP foreign policy advantage during the Cold War; a serious gap in candidate quality; the declining relevance of economic policies that seem better suited to the 1980s; and an occasionally deserved reputation for being judgmental and censorious.
A full Republican appreciation of these disturbing fundamentals was delayed by the 2010 midterms, in which an unreconstructed anti-government message seemed to be riding a wave. Just two years later came that wave’s withdrawing roar. The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, lost by 5 million votes to a beatable incumbent presiding over an anemic economy. The explanation is not purely technical or personality oriented. At the national level, Republicans have a winning message for a nation that no longer exists.
In retrospect, last year’s Republican primary process was entirely disconnected from the actual needs of the party. One candidate pledged to build a 20-foot-high electrical fence at the border crowned with the sign, in English and Spanish, “It will kill you — Warning.” Another promised, as president, to speak out against the damage done to American society by contraception. Another warned that vaccinations may cause “mental retardation.” In the course of 20 debates and in tens of millions of dollars of ads, issues such as upward mobility, education, poverty, safer communities and the environment were rarely mentioned.