Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

The GOP's real problem is ideology

By Will Marshall, Special to CNN
November 9, 2012 -- Updated 1449 GMT (2249 HKT)
Disgruntled conservatives are already making Mitt Romney the fall guy. But that is the politics of evasion, says Will Marshall.
Disgruntled conservatives are already making Mitt Romney the fall guy. But that is the politics of evasion, says Will Marshall.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama's re-election was an unmistakable defeat for GOP ideology, says Will Marshall
  • Tea party radicalism seemed to work in 2010, but not this time, he says
  • According to exit polls, a plurality of voters were moderates, says Marshall
  • The GOP strategy of relying on white voters has reached a dead end, he says

Editor's note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left think tank in Washington.

(CNN) -- Republicans are consoling themselves with the claim that President Barack Obama didn't win a mandate Tuesday night, even if he did renew his White House lease for another four years. They are fooling themselves, however, if they think the 2012 election merely ratified the political status quo. More than just a personal victory for Obama, the outcome was an unmistakable defeat for GOP ideology.

Disgruntled conservatives, of course, are already dressing Mitt Romney for the part of fall guy. But this is the politics of evasion. Sooner or later, GOP realists will have to reappraise the party's message rather than shoot its messenger.

That message was a call for rolling back government. Intoxicated by a potent brew of resurgent libertarian dogma and intense personal animus toward Obama, Republicans vowed to undo his major achievements: health care reform, new rules for financial markets, the regulation of carbon emissions, higher fuel economy standards for autos, and so on.

Will Marshall
Will Marshall

Conservatives also railed against an alleged epidemic of dependency on government; called for deep spending cuts (but no tax hikes) to reduce public deficits; threatened to roll back women's reproductive rights; and took extreme positions on tax, immigration and energy issues that seemed calculated to thwart bipartisan compromise.

Such tea party radicalism seemed to work in 2010, amid acute public dissatisfaction with the slow pace of economic recovery. But a different electorate -- larger, more moderate and more Democratic -- rejected the conservative vision this time.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In effect, the pragmatic center reasserted itself on Tuesday. According to exit polls, a plurality of voters, 41%, were moderates, and they favored Obama by 15 points. In general, voters viewed Obama as more for the middle class and Republicans as tilting toward the interests of the rich. They did not accept Romney's claims that Obama has been an incompetent economic manager; nearly half the voters instead blamed the weak economy on his predecessor.

Opinion: Obama's critics, repudiated at last

And for all the GOP's ceaseless demonization of Obamacare, the issue seemed to work in the president's favor. Exit polls say health care registered as the voters' second most important concern (albeit a distant second to the economy and jobs). Obama won massively among these voters, which suggests that Republican promises to kill health care reform may have backfired by spurring greater intensity among its advocates.

GOP faces changing demographics
Hutchison: Tea Party muddled message
The political path forward for GOP

Some Republicans point hopefully to the fact that the election barely changed the existing composition of political forces in Washington. That's true, but this was an election they could have won. With stubbornly high unemployment and the president's low approval ratings (often below the previously supposed "can't win" threshold of 50%), the Republicans had objective reality on their side. Instead, they blew it by indulging in pathological partisanship and ideological hubris.

We asked CNN readers for the top three things they think Republicans should do next after the election. Click through the gallery to see some of the responses. Some of the posts have been edited for length and clarity. View full comment We asked CNN readers for the top three things they think Republicans should do next after the election. Click through the gallery to see some of the responses. Some of the posts have been edited for length and clarity. View full comment
Readers: What the GOP should do right now
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Readers: What the GOP should do Readers: What the GOP should do

The big question now is whether Republicans will accept the lessons of their defeat or take refuge in the usual alibis. The biggest lesson, of course, is they lost because they picked the wrong candidate -- a Massachusetts moderate who didn't given the country a clear choice between undiluted conservatism and Obama's alleged ultra-liberalism. This electoral math is no better than Romney's budget math. America may list slightly to the center-right, but no party can cede the center and win.

What Republicans really need is an analogue to the New Democrat movement of the 1990s -- a determined effort by moderates and pragmatists to reassert control over their party's agenda and electoral strategies. Whether they realize that is another matter: Democrats had to lose four out of five presidential elections between 1968 and 1992 before finally accepting that their message could no longer command electoral majorities.

Opinion: Obama will get little time to celebrate

Republicans don't have that luxury. Tuesday's results made it blindingly obvious that the GOP's political strategy of relying almost exclusively on white voters already has reached a dead end. As expected, white turnout was 72%, according to exit polls, two points down from 2008, and is projected to be two points lower in 2016. The GOP's bet on a kind of white identity politics -- which dates back to Ronald Reagan's successful 1966 run for governor in California and was ruthlessly perfected by Richard Nixon in 1972 -- is played out.

Meanwhile, what the National Journal's Ronald Brownstein calls the Democrats' "coalition of the ascendant" is growing by about the same amount every four years. This coalition includes minorities, young voters and women (especially single women), along with highly educated white professionals.

As they pore over election returns, expect GOP strategists to look especially ruefully at Latino voters. Obama won them by 71% to 27%, according to exit polls, improving on his 2008 performance. Assuming that Latinos would focus mainly on their economic struggles and ignore the GOP's harshly anti-immigrant stance, proved to be a major miscalculation.

A conservative governing philosophy centered on exploiting white voters' sense of cultural dispossession is a formula for political marginalization, if not demographic suicide. Any honest post-mortem of the 2012 election should lead Republican strategists to this inescapable conclusion: It's the ideology, stupid.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Marshall.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT