Are Republicans trying to lose the 2016 presidential race?
In the wake of President Obama's resounding victory in the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee drafted what came to be known as its autopsy report, a sweeping critique of the party's messaging and platform that warned that, unless the party changed, "it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future."
The report was published in March. In the four months since then — in fact, in the last week alone — the GOP, at both the state and federal level, has narrowed its appeal so drastically that, at this rate, it seems quite likely that any generic, scandal-free Democrat could easily win the 2016 presidential election.
The election, of course, is more than three years away. That's a lifetime in politics. Democrats have plenty of time to make all kinds of mistakes of their own. And the public's memory is notoriously fuzzy. But at the moment, it appears the Republican Party has put itself in a box, severely reducing the number of candidates who could both conceivably win a primary campaign and a general election.
Let's start with immigration reform. The RNC's autopsy report said the party "must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform" if it wants a larger share of the growing, all-important Latino vote. Legislation to provide illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, but it was made clear last week that it has no chance in the GOP-controlled House. This is sure to only estrange Latinos further.
As David Brooks, the conservative columnist at The New York Times, recently wrote:
Before Asians, Hispanics and all the other groups can be won with economic plans, they need to feel respected and understood by the G.O.P. They need to feel that Republicans respect their ethnic and cultural identity. If Republicans reject immigration reform, that will be a giant sign of disrespect, and nothing else Republicans say will even be heard. [The New York Times]
Furthermore, the Republican Party's top proponent of immigration reform, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, has seen his star dim significantly as a result of his efforts. Tea Party types have taken to calling him a RINO (Republican in Name Only), which could turn out to be the kiss of death for a Republican presidential hopeful. Erick Erickson at Red State, an influential voice among the conservative base, says Rubio's immigration stance will "come up in ad campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere." Most worryingly for Rubio's team, new polls show his favorability rating dropping by double-digits among Republican voters.
As David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush (and former columnist at TheWeek.com), put it, thanks to his backing of immigration reform, "Rubio is a dead man walking."
Then there is the issue of women's rights, or what Democrats like to call the War on Women. The RNC said the GOP must develop a "forward-leaning vision for voting Republican that appeals to women" if it wants to prevent a repeat of an election that saw Obama win women voters overall by 11 points and single women by a staggering 36 points. But just last week, the Texas legislature, with full-throated support from Republican Gov. Rick Perry, passed one of the toughest abortion laws in the country, which anti-abortion groups warn could lead to the shuttering of all but four of the Lone Star State's abortion clinics.
Texas is just one state, and a ruby-red one at that. This abortion law may be something that many Texans approve of. The issue for Republicans is how it plays nationally. Perry has set the gold standard for anti-abortion legislation at the state level, a position that is sure to be embraced, if not enhanced, by the bulk of Republican primary candidates in 2016. It is no coincidence that Perry himself is said to be considering another run at the presidency. Then there is this: Rubio is proposing federal legislation with similar elements in what many think is a bid to make up for his heresies on immigration.
The Republican Party, in other words, is sending a message to women, as loud and clear as ever, that it opposes abortion rights.
Finally, there is the GOP's economic policies. The RNC was quite emphatic about this: "The perception, revealed in polling, that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the party." And yet just this week we witnessed the House GOP strip the farm bill of food stamps for the poor, which meant that the legislation was composed almost entirely of subsidies for farmers and corporations.
As Ross Douthat, the other conservative columnist at the Times, said:
The compassionate-conservative G.O.P. of George W. Bush combined various forms of corporate welfare with expanded spending on social programs, which was obviously deeply problematic in various ways... but not as absurd and self-dealing as only doing welfare for the rich. [The New York Times]
The next presidential election is in the distant future, politically speaking. A lot can happen. But with the important exception of gay marriage, the Republican Party has taken a hard right turn since the 2012 election. Without a dramatic move back toward the middle, it's hard to imagine the party recovering three years from now. Rather than change the narrative of the party, Republicans are offering new evidence that they remain hostile to minorities, women, and the economically disadvantaged. The perception of the GOP as a group of "stuffy old white men," as the RNC put it, has hardened. The attack ads practically write themselves.
Of course, there's still plenty of time for the party to change by 2016. But as we all know, old habits die hard.