A Winning Formula?
After each of the last three presidents -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama -- won re-election, pundits began speculating that a new winning formula was emerging. Of course, the immediate Democratic and Republican successors to Clinton and Bush received a dose of reality. Following Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry went down to defeat. Following Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney suffered the same fate. And Obama's "formula" will not likely be very helpful to his successor either.
First and foremost, individuals win the presidency, and individuals lose the presidency. Case in point: some Democrats still complain that Gore abandoned Clinton's formula. But that wasn't the problem. A formula that works for one candidate will not work for another candidate with different strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, Gore wasn't Clinton. That was a problem.
Still, there are some qualities shared by winning candidates, and other qualities shared by losing candidates. For example, Republicans have won five of ten presidential elections in the post-Watergate era. Every Republican loss was by a moderate. And every Republican win, except one, was by a conservative. The exception, in 1988, occurred when the elder George Bush, a moderate, rode to victory on the coattails of Ronald Reagan. However, in 1992, when Bush had to run on his own record, he lost; just like the other moderate Republicans.
Now, the repeated failure of moderates in presidential elections hasn't prevented some Republicans, in the wake of Romney's loss, from calling on the GOP to abandon conservative positions. In other words, some Republicans are calling on the GOP to abandon the very thing that has delivered victories for the very thing that has delivered losses.
Of course, the conflict between moderate and conservative Republicans is hardly new. In the aftermath of Watergate, moderates argued that the GOP should start reaching out to voters by dropping conservative positions. However, early in 1975, following a disastrous midterm election for Republicans, Reagan responded by saying, "I don't know about you, but I am impatient with those Republicans who after the last election rushed into print saying, 'We must broaden the base of our party.'" He added, "A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers."
Notably, Reagan faced opposition from the GOP establishment, not only in 1976, when he challenged Gerald Ford, a moderate, in the Republican primaries, but also in 1980, when he campaigned against Bush, and others, for the Republican nomination.
Today, the Republicans calling for change fear that Obama has built a new coalition for the Democrats. Only a few years ago, though, many Democrats believed that Clinton had built a new coalition: a new Democratic majority. But then hope turned to despair, and some Democrats feared that Bush had built a new coalition: a new Republican majority.
In the end, the speculation about winning formulas built on new coalitions fails to properly take into account important factors, including: the negative consequences in the long-term of liberal policies that are popular in the short-term, such as entitlement programs that in the future will have to either be cut or financed with exorbitantly high taxes, which could split a Democratic coalition; the influence of regional issues and one-time issues, which have different effects in different elections; the impact of singular events, such as Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, and Hurricane Sandy; and, most of all, the qualities of the individual candidates, as noted above.
The most frequently mentioned cause for Republican concern is that Democrats have a demographic advantage because of blacks, Hispanics, young voters, and unmarried women. But in Ohio, where demographics aren't particularly an issue, moderate Republicans, including Romney and McCain, still lose, while conservative Republicans win.
Additionally, Bush received the same amount of votes (sixty-two million) nationally in 2004 that Obama received in 2012, despite the population increase over the past eight years. The moderate Romney lost Bush voters.
For the most part, when moderates talk about dropping conservative positions, they're mainly talking about conservative positions on social issues. However, Republicans also can't afford to drop conservative positions on economic issues. Needless to say, the disillusionment with the GOP after Bush (and Republicans in Congress) embraced big government and big spending is still widespread.
The best opportunity for a Republican victory will come from rejecting the calls to drop conservative positions, and nominating a presidential candidate who can attract the people that care about social issues, economic issues, and foreign policy, while also appealing to the general public. And there are plenty of possible candidates that fit the bill. The potential field consists of a young generation of rising conservative stars, including Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte, plus a number of strong veterans, including Mike Pence and Jim DeMint.
In short, the GOP can win back its natural constituents, and build a broader coalition, not by compromising fundamental beliefs, but instead by clearly demonstrating why the liberal approach is wrong, and the conservative approach is right, for individuals, families, communities, and the nation.
A key question, though, will have to be answered. Even if an ideal conservative runs for the Republican nomination, will that conservative face opposition from a GOP that prefers a moderate, such as Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, yet again?