Here in the UK, Conservatives like to talk about “progressive conservatism”. And while many might not be able to explain fully what it means, the party’s reform process and evolution put the Conservatives in No 10 for the first time in 13 years. This transformation could be a lesson for today’s Republicans across the pond.
Now that the dust from another defeat has settled, there are two broad types of Republican responses: tactical and denial.
Thinking tactically, many Republican leaders and millions of pundits are asking what went wrong, focusing on the need to court Latinos and women. Well known southern Republican Senator Lindsay Graham said: “…there is only one explanation: demographics… We’re not losing 95 per cent of African-Americans and two thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.”
Others, like veteran operator Karl Rove are in denial. They comfort themselves that nearly half the country still voted for Republicans and concede only that the Obama campaign had a better ground game in key states.
But neither approach gets to the bottom of why Republicans will not win a meaningful national mandate. The truth is that the Grand Old Party is too old fashioned.
When I left Washington and came to work for the Tories under David Cameron, it was a breath of fresh air. I realised that it is possible to have a nationally electable movement that is conservative but not right wing.
Their evolution from the days of Margaret Thatcher was based on the reality that the country has changed and times have changed. People’s lifestyles, the global economy, international power politics, have all shifted dramatically over the past 30 years. The Tories realised that if they wanted to regain trust and relevance, they had to modernise as well.
It is a lesson that the Republicans must accept or become an irrelevant national political force.
Modernisation cannot be limited to re-branding. It cannot amount simply to a tweaking of the platform and policies here and there to appeal to Latinos and women. It must be a root and branch review of how its programme and rhetoric have led the party away from the core principles of individual responsibility, respect of the individual, government accountability and, importantly, a commitment to fair play and justice for all people.
Some relatively recent Republican initiatives do reflect those principles, particularly the 1996 welfare reform bill which overhauled the welfare system and which even critics acknowledge has worked.
But, we’ve gone off track. Perhaps burned by the global scorn around the war launched with Iraq, foreign policy has been a back burner issue for a party that used to believe in leading the world. Maybe morale was laid low by failed attempts to tackle the systemic problems of the country’s entitlement programme and tangled tax code.
Whatever the reason for failing to reflect and act, there is no time better than now.
A President who had the fight of his political life will, hopefully, extend an olive branch to Congressional Republicans. The Republicans still hold the House, with a slightly diminished margin, but enough to demonstrate leadership and bipartisanship. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has already sounded cooperative and reaching a grand bargain on the looming ‘fiscal cliff’ will show voters they can rise above politics.
The Republican National Committee should develop a programme to bring party leaders together with governors and local members to start a meaningful discussion on the future of the party.
Exit polls show us why this is necessary.
Voters aged 18-34 overwhelmingly backed Obama (63%) as did Latinos (71%) and African Americans (93%). Women, which account for 53% of the electorate, supported Obama 55 to 44%.
Other indicators of the country’s shift on high-profile social issues are also relevant for a Republican re-think.
Americans have increased their support for gay marriage with more than half now supporting it, 10 points above 2010. Fifty-nine per cent of voters think abortion should remain legal. Sixty-five per cent of voters think illegal immigrants should be given the chance to get legal status.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Republicans can take some heart knowing there is a place for conservatives in America’s future. Polls showed that middle class voters (earning $50-99,000 per year) supported the Republicans 52-46%. Forty-one per cent of voters see themselves as moderate and 35% as conservative. Only 25% are liberal.
It’s time for the party to shake off the manacles of the right wing and embrace the new face and values of the country. Build that onto the sound principles of fairness, justice and individual responsibility and the party stands a chance of winning on the national stage.