One-hundred and fifty years after America’s first Republican president freed the slaves, the party he helped found is faltering. Its ideology of tax cuts, free trade and deregulation seemingly failed to deliver results when Republicans controlled the government during the first eight years of the new millennium, and now its positions on specific policy questions like immigration, guns and abortion are losing ground with the electorate. Rather than dealing with its waning appeal, the G.O.P. courts further electoral disaster by threatening a federal debt default that could alienate voters in the middle for many years to come.
This is an amazing reversal of fortune from the political dominance that Republicans have enjoyed since Ronald Reagan won the White House in the realigning election of 1980. Back then it was the Democrats who had run out of gas, and the G.O.P. offered hope to a nation beleaguered by weak leadership abroad and rampant inflation at home. Now it is the G.O.P.’s turn to learn what it means to lose the confidence of the nation. Although Barack Obama’s 2008 election was a fluke made possible by an unpopular war and collapsing markets, he has proven to be an adept politician, winning reelection despite a poor economic and fiscal record. The fact that a charismatic Republican candidate could not beat Obama says a lot about how voters have lost faith in the G.O.P.’s message.
The most striking fact about the Republican decline is that on many issues, the party’s philosophy seems more valid than that of the opposing party. The continuously escalating cost of the welfare state really is unsustainable. Taxes really are a drag on economic growth. And free trade really has been a boon to living standards around the world. The issues on which the party is wrong, like abortion and guns, are give-aways to single-issue constituencies that probably help the party in elections despite their anachronistic flavor. Which means Republicans are losing elections on issues where they are often analytically, intellectually right. How is that possible?
It seems the core problem is that the modern G.O.P. can’t tell its story to normal people — meaning people who haven’t read Atlas Shrugged. There is no latter-day Ronald Reagan able to explain the philosophy of conservatism convincingly to an audience of the uncommitted. Thus, ideas that are mostly common sense such as the negative impact of welfare programs on motivation get twisted into caricatures by intermediaries in the media. Republicans grouse that most journalists are liberals, but the reality is that few people outside the conservative movement can make much sense of what it espouses. If Republicans are to have any hope of recovering the political power they have lost, then they need to understand why Barack Obama keeps beating them. It isn’t the superiority of his ideas, but rather his skill in explaining those ideas to an electorate that by and large is apolitical.