For three days last week, an array of suitors postured, posed, and preened, hoping to win the affection of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
One take-away from this year’s confab is that the right is in trouble, at risk of a schism between social conservatives and small-government libertarians and at risk also of an upcoming presidential nominating campaign reminiscent of the embarrassments of 2012. A different read, however, is that conservatives — and ultimately, the Republican Party — are coming to grips with a demographic reality that now favors Democrats.
The last GOP nominating process still stands out as an almost surreal event. It was obvious to everyone except Republicans that Mitt Romney would ultimately be their nominee. But rather than close ranks behind him, week after week saw one improbable candidate after another rising to the top — and usually doing so by ripping into Romney. And the candidates themselves were often little more than jokes; remember Herman Cain? What we were seeing was a party grassroots unwilling to accept the mainstream Romney (and, despite protestations about being “severely conservative,” he was mainstream.) They wanted someone more conservative, more authentic. The problem was that they really didn’t know what version of conservative and authentic they wanted.
Perhaps that’s changing.
News reports from CPAC describe the 2016 Republican field as “unsettled,” which doubtless is the case. At one point it had seemed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might at least paper over the party’s divisions, but Bridgegate has made him vulnerable and few will be automatically ceding him the nomination. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of George W., possibly could clear the field, but he doesn’t seem interested. And so there is an array of names. Some are familiar from past campaigns: preacher and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and former US Senator Rick Santorum. Others are new, notably US Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
Folks like Huckabee and Santorum represent the party’s religious right, and in their speeches they seemed to give no quarter. “If this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us,” Huckabee warned. On the other hand, it seemed as if it was the libertarians who held sway. The highlight of the conference was its straw poll of candidates, and the fiery Rand Paul won it decisively, with a plurality of 31 percent. His words were a clarion call for reform: “Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom. The new GOP, the GOP that will win again, will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere.” Moreover, three of the next top-four finishers were all more or less Paul’s ideological kinsmen, either mainstream Republicans like Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, or firebrands such as Cruz.
So is some version of libertarianism taking hold of the GOP? Here’s another interesting indicator. In the same straw poll, a significant majority approved either legalizing recreational use of marijuana (41 percent) or at least making it available for medical use (another 21 percent). This is not, as they would say, your father’s GOP.
And indeed, it better not be. The big problem with the GOP is that its ideologies profoundly alienate vast swaths of the electorate. Gay rights and same-sex marriage — overwhelmingly supported by the young — are as thoroughly owned by Democrats as were civil rights two generations ago. Republicans’ harsh rhetoric on immigration puts off the rapidly growing Hispanic population. Democratic stances on choice and workplace equality attract women. And GOP opposition to a higher minimum wage drives working-class voters into Democratic arms.
Thus, the crying need for a Republican makeover. If the GOP wants to capture the presidency in 2016, it needs to shed its preachy moralizing and divisive rhetoric and come up with something new and all-encompassing. The old ideas just don’t sell anymore.
This column originally appeared in The Boston Globe on March 11, 2014.