John McCain's defeat last week revealed some very serious problems plaguing the Republican Party and presidential politics. In my last post-mortem, I addressed the problem of electoral math and how safe Democratic states significantly outweighed safe Republican states as far as the Electoral College was concerned. In this second installment, I will address a more glaring problem that threatens to gut the party at the congressional level so much that not even gerrymandered districts can save it.
This problem has existed for years, but it wasn't until the Republican National Convention that its starkness could be witnessed by a mass audience. Whether by intention, by accident, or by negligence, the Republican Party's "big tent" is anything but that. It has become a closed party that consists of Whites, Christians, older people, and rural voters. And to compound this even further, it is also the political home of the nativist wing of American society. This assertion is backed up by exit polls, which showed McCain winning Whites, voters over 60, Protestants, weekly churchgoers, and voters living in small towns and rural areas. Barack Obama won everyone else.
Nobody is calling Republicans racist. However, many people who are not White, rural, Christian, or over 50 do not feel the party embraces them, their beliefs, or their lifestyle. And in the unfortunate event that a Republican candidate, operative, or supporter does engage in some form of identity-based insensitivity, others in the party do not deliver a rebuke firmly enough to send an unequivocal message that such behavior will not be tolerated and does not represent the party of Lincoln.
At the Democratic National Convention, one could easily see the diversity within the party. People had light skin, dark skin, turbans, dreadlocks, yarmulkes, prosthetic limbs, business suits, cowboy hats, and T-shirts. They were all crowded together in the convention hall and at the football stadium where Obama gave his acceptance speech. And they looked comfortable together.
One look at the crowds at the Republican National Convention, on the other hand, revealed nothing but a sea of White faces and cowboy hats. There's obviously nothing wrong with White people or cowboy hats, but in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly urban, this is a big political problem. It turned out that only 36 of the 2380 delegates were Black, for example. That's 1.5%. The convention attendees may not have noticed it in the convention hall, but it came across terribly on television. One look at the conventions sent a clear message to voters which party was the more inclusive one.
On top of this, Sarah Palin, campaign surrogates, and even some of the people who attended McCain-Palin campaign rallies exacerbated this with their rhetoric which led to outright rage among members of their crowds.
In terms of rhetoric, one of the few major mistakes Obama made during the campaign was calling rural voters "bitter." This was an insult that gave Republicans an opening to attack Obama's character and expose him as a hypocrite who talks about hope and unity in public, but is a condescending elitist in private. But fortunately for Obama, he only said it once and he said it early in the campaign season. Obama apologized for the remark and was able to build up enough goodwill with voters on the campaign trail since then (e.g., he held many campaign events in rural Republican areas that drew huge crowds) for voters to give him a pass.
Republicans, however, unwittingly made the same gaffe over and over again. And this gaffe was far more insulting to far more people and says a lot more about Republicans' political weaknesses than it does about Obama's.
Barack Obama did not beat Republicans in this regard. Barack Hussein Obama did. Obama's middle name may have turned out to be a bigger liability for McCain's campaign than for Obama's, as I first argued in February:
"In fairness, it must be said that the people bringing up the 'Hussein' line of attack may not necessarily be doing McCain's explicit bidding. However, as long as these people continue to speak in McCain's defense and at his campaign events, McCain will be tarnished by association. 'Hussein' might win political points among Republican partisans, but it likely won't win over any new Republican voters--many of whom have already turned a deaf ear on the Republican brand."Republicans commonly (and unnecessarily) used the name "Hussein" as a pejorative to imply that Obama was somehow foreign, un-American, or a Muslim (and a terrorist by extension). They may claim that they did nothing wrong because, after all, "Hussein" was his middle name. But if these Republicans want to continue using this line of defense, they had better get used to living in the political wilderness because to people who are not in the Republican camp, this repeated use of innuendo came across as mean-spirited and an affront to everyone who was somehow "different."
These people on the outside didn't just hear Republicans mock "Hussein."
They heard them mock Xiaoming.
They heard them laugh at Vijay.
They heard them insult Guillermo.
They heard them ridicule Svetlana.
An attack on "Hussein" was an attack on dashikis, saris, lederhosen, lo mein, chorizo, yakiniku, Buddhists, Pashtuns, boleros, Tagalog speakers, jai alai, sumo wrestling, Cinco de Mayo, Fasching, Lunar New Year, and anyone and anything else that is somehow "different" even though they are just as "American" as Jack Jones, pork chops, tractors, and Garth Brooks CDs. This kind of divisive rhetoric explains why people abroad overwhelmingly supported Obama more than McCain.
Even worse, these attacks on "Hussein" were also very off-putting to "regular" people who didn't understand why any innocent group of people and their culture had to be demonized so often on the campaign trail. Republicans should have heeded Democrats' warnings when many of them changed their middle names to Hussein in protest. Republicans may complain about political correctness, but they whine at their own peril. Somehow, political correctness has usurped the term respect even though they are two totally different things.
Young people in particular are more tolerant as a whole than older people because they have no connection to segregation or the civil rights era, as I argued long before Iowa in an essay about the younger generation. They go to integrated schools, attend universities with diverse student populations, and work in multicultural offices. Engaging in culture wars (like the "Hussein" innuendos) threaten to turn an entire generation of young voters off from the GOP. Consider the overwhelming majority of young Facebook voters who supported Obama over McCain. When can a 26-year old be persuaded to vote Republican again?
Republicans spent a lot of time complaining about "liberal elitists." Rudy Giuliani mocked Obama at the convention for being too "cosmopolitan." Fred Thompson scoffed at the "Georgetown cocktail circuit." Sarah Palin was proud that she "didn't run with the Washington herd." Republicans tried to brand themselves as the party of average people. Sarah Palin herself said she wanted to stand up for "hockey moms" and "Joe Six Packs" around America. But as America changes, the definition of what constitutes an "average American" changes too and more and more people can't identify with the old definition.
One of McCain's senior campaign aides offended millions of voters by claiming they didn't live in "real Virginia." Sarah Palin said she was happy to be campaigning in "real America" and "pro-America" parts of the country. North Carolina Representative Robin Hayes claimed that "liberals hate real Americans." (He lost his reelection bid.) Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann said members of Congress should be investigated for "anti-American" sentiments. John McCain himself overreached when he said voters in western Pennsylvania were the "most patriotic, most God-loving" in the country. The end result of all this is that Republicans ironically became the very people they railed against on the campaign trail. They became elitists whose authenticity as Americans somehow meant more than that of the people they ridiculed on the campaign trail.
And finally, Republicans are going to have to reconsider some of their policies. It is understandable that they may want to maintain their socially and economically conservative policies, which is fine. But at the very least, they will need to do a much better job of explaining to voters of all types how these policies are better for their communities than the Democrats' policies. This means, for example, that instead of simply saying "we are pro-life," they need to say something that connects Republican policies to voters' lives:
"The Republican Party congratulates Barack Obama on his historical achievement. The 2008 election proved that everyone can succeed in America, and Republicans want to ensure that everyone has this chance. Everyone. The baby you are carrying now may turn out to be the scientist who finds a cure for AIDS, the author who supplants Dr. Seuss when you read to your children at bedtime, or maybe even the 51st President of the United States. The Republican Party believes that by preserving all life, we are preserving all opportunities not just for your baby, but for all of America."It only took me 10 minutes to come up with that. Surely the high paid Republican consultants and strategists can come up with something even better. Simply saying "we are pro-life" has little meaning outside of the pro-life community and it sounds stale because voters have heard Republicans say that for years.
Barack Obama did not surrender any political issue or voter demographic in this election. He openly talked about his faith, he sought common ground on abortion, and he talked about tax cuts for small businesses. He was able to make inroads with all of these types of voters not just by talking with them, but by showing how his policies mattered to their lives.
So the Republican Party has a lot of work to do. It needs to connect its ideology with voters who do not currently make up the Republican base, and it needs to respect these voters in general. But it also needs to be realistic. Rather than trying to win 30% of the Black vote, for example, they could try to win 15%. Rather than aspiring to win 50% of the Latino vote, they could try to win 40%. Had they been able to do this, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida probably would have stayed red.
The Obama campaign ran against John McCain and the shadow of George Bush. The McCain campaign, however, ran against a new America that is only growing. The same old playbook that targets the same old demographics won't work anymore. A Democrat-controlled Washington provides Republicans with an enormous opportunity to show how the Democratic Party is ineffective at serving all voters' interests. But are the Republicans prepared to talk to all voters?
The next installment in this series will address the Republicans' failed tactics.