The Republican Party can remain a Ronald Reagan historical society, or it can try to endure as a force in national politics. But it can’t do both. The choice matters greatly, for there is no guarantee that the GOP will retain its ability to win national elections or that conservatism has a future as a national governing philosophy.
The Republican Party may survive, but only if its politicians, activists, donors and intellectuals rethink modern conservatism and find new issues to defend and new arguments with which to defend them. The public face of the GOP can no longer be aging, ill-tempered Reaganites such as John McCain and Jim DeMint but must give way to a diverse, media-savvy generation that understands the America we actually live in. Only then can the essence of conservatism — the promotion of personal liberty — survive, and the GOP along with it.
“We’re winning everything imaginable in off-years,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told me recently. “The governors are still going strong. We’re winning the war in issue-driven races.” However, he conceded that Republicans have lost their ability to connect with average Americans in the wider electorate: “We are not relating to people at an emotional level.”
The 2012 presidential election should have been an opportunity to make that connection. The party seemed to have everything it needed in its nominee: an intelligent and experienced candidate with a tax-cutting agenda, a defense of traditional values, a commitment to maintain U.S. supremacy in the world — and an adoring wife, too. Unfortunately, Mitt Romney seemed to be campaigning for the 1980 election, with attacks on welfare recipients and promises of greater defense spending and getting government off our backs.
In the months since Romney’s defeat, there has been a great deal of angst about the party’s future. Some Republicans, such as Karl Rove and his American Crossroads super PAC, are certain that the GOP has a personnel problem and are determined to weed out self-destructive candidates. But the problems are more serious than simply who is winning primary races. This is not a matter of individually competent candidates but of the GOP’s outdated worldview.