Some Democrats are delighted that, in their eyes, the Republican Party is dead. And they have, particularly at this fragile moment in time, reason to say so.
But it’s far too soon to write the party’s obituary.
Going back nearly a third of a century, to 1992, Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. Ask yourself whether it is coincidental that this decades-long electoral failure occurred as the party allowed its traditional orthodoxies — free trade, immigration, multilateralism and more — to be gradually overtaken by nativism, isolationism, xenophobia and even some tin foil-on-the-head (or animal horns, as we saw on Jan. 6) conspiracy-peddling loons.
Calls to 10 Republican senators about this were not returned. But one, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, noted in The Atlantic last week that “[i]t is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice.”
None of this started with Donald Trump. But his presidency, which ends at noon Wednesday, was an accelerant after a decades-long erosion in values and the exorcism of officials who tried to adhere to those values and paid a price for doing so.
The latest example of this: Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House and daughter of the former Vice President Dick Cheney, is now in hot water for having the temerity to criticize Trump for, as she said, inciting the attack on the Capitol. What does it say about a party so insecure and intolerant that it feels compelled to oust those within it who speak their conscience? The greatest Republicans of the 20th century — Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan — would be disgusted.
Fork in the road
And so, the GOP is at a fork in the road. Will it continue to be dominated by pro-Trumpers, or give way to Never-Trumpers like Sasse and Cheney?
So, yes, there are reasons to write the Republican Party’s obituary. But that obituary has been written before, albeit in less existential times than the party appears to face now.
For example, some thought the GOP would never recover from 1964, when Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in a massive landslide. What happened four years later? Richard Nixon was elected.
And after Watergate, which resulted in Nixon’s humiliating resignation in 1974, a Democratic wave election in the midterm election that fall and the triumph of Jimmy Carter in 1976, surely the Republicans were finished? Wrong again. Along came Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1980; Republicans would control the White House for the next dozen years.
Now, because of Trump’s defeat, we hear the GOP is finished again. In fact, some critics have said the party is so done that it’s about to go the way of the Whigs, the 19th-century party that vanished into oblivion over its wrong stance on slavery. (Ironically, the modern-day GOP was founded by anti-slavery elements who deserted the Whigs in 1854, paving the way for the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln.)
But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the party’s death may be greatly exaggerated. Trump may be gone, but strip away the word “Trump” from “Republican Party” and you can find a GOP in better shape than its opponents might be willing to admit. Trump clearly lost. But with 74 million votes — 47% of the popular vote — it wasn’t exactly a blowout.
Meantime, Republicans actually gained seats in the House of Representatives. On the Senate side, instead of losing the chamber outright by several seats as was expected, they hung on in places like Iowa and Maine and scratched out 50 seats. Democrats had to win both runoffs earlier this month in Georgia to match that. A 50-50 tie means the president of the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris, will cast any tie-breaking votes. But consider this: With a 50-50 tie, Republicans are in a position to pick off a Democrat or two on certain issues and have their way. Example: While Sen. Joe Manchin is a Democrat, he’s also from the coal country of West Virginia and may not necessarily go along with Biden’s energy and climate plans.
These smaller margins in Congress imply a moderate agenda from Biden, much closer to the political center than Democratic progressives (which Biden is not) would prefer.
And remember this: History also suggests that the party in the White House usually loses ground in midterm elections. Democrats had 233 seats at the end of the last Congress; they now have 221 to the Republicans’ 211. (There are three vacancies at the moment.) That’s an awfully narrow margin, and while I’m not saying this will happen, no one should be surprised if Republicans flip the House in 2022. One possible foreshadowing of this is the fact that Republicans flipped four seats in blue-state California in November, the first time in nearly a quarter-century that Republicans captured a Democratic-held congressional district in the Golden State. And they captured four of them.
Making strides in the states
That’s what Washington will look like for the next two years. What about beyond the Beltway? For the GOP, there are reasons to be optimistic. Of the 50 states, 27 have Republican governors. In 22 states, there is both a Republican governor and a Republican-dominated legislature; for Democrats this is true in just 15 states. (Power is divided in the others.)
The fact that Republicans dominate more state legislative bodies is a big deal, because they’ll get to carve out new congressional districts, based on the 2020 Census. They’ll be able to gerrymander districts any way they like — which plays into a possible flipping of the House in 2022.
Again, the question is: Will these Republicans be Trumpers or never-Trumpers? Don’t assume that Trump’s grip on the party is enduring: A recent ABC-Washington Post survey, for example, said 57% of Republicans want their party to follow Trump’s lead. While a clear majority, that’s down from 76% who said so three years ago.
Another data point of interest: The banning of Trump by Twitter
has resulted in a 73% drop in misinformation on social media about the election, claims research firm Zignal Labs. Given that other Republicans amplified his lies about the election — helping to inflame the goons who attacked the Capitol — this could foreshadow an easing of tensions.
The perennial pendulum
Then there is this: For all the current focus on Trump and his toxic, chaotic brand, it’s important to take a step back and realize that the pendulum in American politics typically swings back and forth. Since the 1960s, for example, we went from the liberal Johnson to the conservative Nixon (and briefly Gerald Ford) to the liberal Carter to the conservative Reagan (and elder Bush) to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And, most recently from a liberal Barack Obama to Trump, and now to Biden. Along the way we’ve had Congresses that have been dominated by both parties at certain times, but more typically divided. The pendulum swings back and forth.
The White House now has swung left (or center-left), but as I’ve just shown, no one should be shocked if it were to swing back four or eight years from now.
States are like this too. California, the land of Nixon and Reagan, is now known for Nancy Pelosi and Harris. Texas, which Franklin D. Roosevelt won four times with an average 81% of the vote, and was also won by John F. Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, hasn’t gone blue for a president since 1976, but I suspect it will soon.
But all that aside, Republicans have another problem: They’re swimming against the current in terms of demographics. They’re going to have to adapt, and fast.
Consider that Trump’s base generally skews older, white, male, rural and lesser educated. (I said generally skews.) These characteristics, all of them, run counter to an America that is growing more urban, more educated and less white — white births are now a minority of all births, for example —than ever before.
The GOP knows this. After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential race to Obama, the Republican National Committee did a deep dive and said if they didn’t position itself ahead of these demographic trends, it would be in long-term trouble. Trump came along four years later and ignored all that, doubling down on older white, rural men. What happened? He lost the popular vote by three million to Hillary Clinton and seven million to Biden.
What the Republican Party needs to do
For the Republican Party to survive and thrive in the future, it must do three things.
It should stop playing the “older rural white men” card and adapt to the new face of the electorate. It must also flush the toxic sludge that has been allowed to course through its veins. And it must stop vendettas against those individuals of conscience who remain.
Can it do these things? As Trump always liked to say, “We’ll see what happens.”