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‘Angry white guys’ and the future of the Republican Party

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In the aftermath of Mitt Romney's defeat last month, Republicans are talking of change. The Republican National Committee's creation of the 'Growth and Opportunity Project' signalled this thirst for change. 'Any good organization has to be introspective whenever things don't go well,' said Sally Bradshaw, a member of the five-person group launched on 10 December. 'And that's where we are. Things didn't go very well in November.'

The Republicans' key challenge is a crisis of demographics - one that is increasingly problematic, as America becomes more diverse. 'The demographics race we're losing badly,' Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) observed in August. 'We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.' There's talk among Republicans of moderation on immigration and taxation, in order to reach out to Latinos and middle-income Americans. Demography (though not policy) is just one of eight topics - most of which tackle organisational deficiencies - that RNC chair Reince Priebus has asked the Growth and Opportunity Project to address. But history suggests that change is easier to discuss than achieve. The career of Richard Nixon, who tried to reinvent the Republican Party as a more successful vote-winning machine, offers lessons to learn and mistakes to avoid for today's Republicans.

The Republican problem of defeat is not new. During the years after World War II, Nixon forged his career in a party defined by defeat. The Great Depression of the 1930s sent Republican fortunes plummeting, and for decades the Democrats were the natural party of government. This was an era when questions of 'big government' to tackle the nation's socio-economic problems were frequently central to US politics. Republicans called for smaller government, but a majority of Americans preferred the Democrats' moderate, pragmatic agenda of activist government. This approach had created and then protected and extended America's welfare state; it saw a proactive role for the federal government in ensuring prosperity and avoiding unemployment. America's preference for this moderate liberalism created an electoral conundrum that Republicans fiercely debated for decades, without resolving.

No Republican of his era thought more carefully about the party's problems than Richard Nixon. His conclusions were iconoclastic. Nixon believed that the party's anti-big government ideas had little promise as a winning strategy against the Democrats. He looked elsewhere for electoral advantage. Believing in the value of 'attack politics', he searched for ways to demonise the Democrats' liberalism that avoided the 'big government' debate. His political ascendance was rooted in this insight; he attacked Democratic opponents as soft on Communism, characterising Helen Gahagan Douglas as the 'pink lady' in his successful bid to take her Senate seat in 1950. It was a successful but controversial strategy. Playing on anti-Communist fears - relying on attack politics - did not build long-term advantage for Republicans.

When Nixon won the White House at the end of the 1960s, it was thanks to a tide of anti-Democratic discontent and divisions among Democrats - not a vote of confidence in him. Congress remained in Democratic hands. To tackle the party's continuing electoral challenges, Nixon embarked on a plan to expand its base, to win the support of 'middle Americans' traditionally in the Democrats' camp. The boldest part of the plan was a reform agenda that Nixon, decrying his party's negativism, labelled a 'new American revolution'. Innovatively blending conservatism with moderate and even progressive ideas, the agenda included welfare reform that imposed work requirements but increased benefits. It also featured a healthcare plan, decades before the 'Obamacare' law that so many Republicans have denounced.

But Nixon's ideas were too bold for the party. He did not energise fellow Republicans in support of his reform agenda, which mostly remained unimplemented. The project of party reinvention failed. Strong, imaginative leadership was not enough to take the party in a direction that was out of tune with its anti-government heart.

So Nixon returned to attack politics - comfortable, familiar territory for 'tricky Dick'. He harnessed anxiety about 1960s social upheavals and the setbacks of the Vietnam War, defining Democrats as too liberal on social issues and too weak on foreign policy. Knitting electoral expedience with an argument about limited government, he also continued to build support among southern whites by resisting further expansions of civil rights. On the road to re-election in 1972, his campaign targeted the Democrat George McGovern as the 'three As' candidate: acid, abortion, and amnesty (for those who had avoided military service). Later Republicans echoed Nixon's themes of social conservatism and patriotism. This improved the party's electoral fortunes. It was an agenda that inspired activist enthusiasm, embedding social conservatism in the party base.

Not only did Nixon fail to make the Republican Party more moderate, but his initiatives had unintended consequences. Though comfortable with social conservatism, Nixon continued to view economic conservatism as electorally unproductive. But disillusionment with Nixon's centrism inspired conservative Republicans to mobilise in support of a different party vision, one that renewed anti-government values. The post-Nixon party was thus economically as well as socially conservative. Buoyed by crumbling confidence in government, this conservatism led to gains under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and then Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

Nixon's legacy was not a party of positive reform, but Lindsey Graham's 'angry white guys' party - now out of step with contemporary politics and the problem for Republicans to solve. Nixon's experience suggests that the task ahead is not straightforward. Indeed, constraints are more significant now. This is because primary voters - who will choose the 2016 presidential candidate - carry more influence. The growing influence of primaries was another product of the 1970s reform spirit, boosting their role in presidential selection at the expense of party leaders. The Republican base has a limited appetite for a party vision insufficiently sceptical of 'big government'.

And life is more difficult for today's Republicans in another way. When Nixon was president, the Democrats' disarray improved prospects for Republican growth. In 2012, Democrats are strong and will work hard to maintain and expand their coalition - to confound Republican comeback efforts. The current disarray of the Republican Party is a challenge that would tax the political imagination even of Richard Nixon.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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