We’ve all played Jenga: You start with a solid tower made out of latticed layers of wooden blocks, then take turns removing pieces from the base and balancing them atop the increasingly ungainly structure until the whole thing topples over — or the pizza bagels are ready. Anyway, building majority coalitions is a lot like this. To a certain extent, both the Republican and the Democratic coalitions are ungainly and irrational constructs (Ted Nugent and Mitt Romney? Jesse Jackson and Barney Frank?). But current conditions — the recession and the prospects of a slow-growth, high-unemployment “new normal” — give Democrats an advantage in keeping their cats herded.
In a sentence, the poorest Democrats (who also tend to be the most socially conservative) are locked into the coalition out of sheer material fear, giving wealthier, socially progressive Democrats a freer hand to pursue their cultural projects. The Republicans got the bum end. As in 1932 and 1936, they failed to convince the financially insecure middle of the country that the government is worse suited to help them than they are to help themselves. This gives them little room to maneuver on cultural issues such as gay marriage, or issues such as immigration, which cuts across the cultural/economic divide.
Many on the Right argue, plausibly, that a GOP softening on gay marriage might bring on board a few hundred thousand fiscally conservative small-L libertarians, but it would also alienate a couple dozen million evangelicals. Mutatis mutandis, they say, a pro-amnesty GOP might make marginal gains with those elusive “socially conservative” Latinos, but only by forsaking the white working class. These realities would leave the GOP little margin for error in this game of Demographic Jenga under normal conditions. But to tweak your base when the middle of the country is voting like Marx was right is an especially high-risk, low-reward stratagem.
The Defense Straitjacket
Okay, so if a leftward cultural pivot is a non-starter, what about monkeying with the other traditional source of Republican strength, national security? Here again the Democratic coalition’s moral flexibility and willingness to strategically subvert lesser progressive goals in order to achieve greater ones has snookered Republicans. Just as Senator John F. Kennedy got to the right of Republicans on national defense by warning of a “missile gap” with the Soviets, President Obama is determined to drone-down so many terrorists in so many countries that that Republicans will be too busy choking on smoke to complain about anything else.
Consider that the biggest blow Republicans have been able to land on defense concerned the killing of an ambassador in Libya, a country where the president launched a brushfire war of choice with Republican acquiescence. Meanwhile, his party is newly enamored of the war on terror and silent on the civil-liberties concerns that animated it in the Bush years, and the corpse of a single dead terrorist carries so much symbolic heft that the president might have been cheered for scuttling the USS Carl Vinson, so long as Osama Bin Laden went down with it. How, in this climate, can the Republicans retool their national-security profile and pick off marginal voters? There is some hope that their allowing sequestration to go through could — presuming it is done wisely — bring some foreign-policy paleocons, realists, and libertarians in from the cold. But for the reasons stated above, there is just as much reason to suspect it will disgruntle hawks even more.
The fight for the American People is still within the margin of error
So is the GOP finished? Hardly. In fact, the biggest thing constraining the party’s effort to fundamentally rebrand itself might just be that it doesn’t need to. We are two years removed from a historically good midterm for Republicans, and two years out from another midterm that, given present conditions, could prove very good as well. Meanwhile, the reelection of the president was narrower than his election, and while there is widespread disagreement about the apportionment of blame for Mitt Romney’s loss, most believe it was at least partly technical. Unlike core beliefs, campaign modalities and technologies are something the party can change — and quickly. Throw in a much stronger crop of presidential hopefuls and, even controlling for the Hillary Contingency, the Republicans’ national prospects are far from bleak in the near term.
Now, in the long term, they may well be bleak, for all sorts of reasons. But that’s a different animal. The Republican and Democratic parties of 2053 might be as different from their current versions as their current versions are from the Republican and Democratic parties of 1933. That won’t be up to Eric Cantor or David Brooks, but to forces bigger than any party leader or PR strategy.