From The New York Times
When Republican leaders in Congress agreed to raise taxes on the wealthy last
week, it left the increasingly fractured and feuding party unified on perhaps
only one point: that it is at a major crossroads.
From Mitt Romney’s loss on Election Day through the
recent tax fight that shattered party discipline in the House of
Representatives, Republicans have seen the foundations of their political
strategy called into question, stirring a newly urgent debate about how to
reshape and redefine their party.
At issue immediately is whether that can be achieved
through a shift in tactics and tone, or will instead require a deeper rethinking
of the party’s longtime positions on bedrock issues like guns and immigration
President Obama intends to test the willingness of Republicans to bend on those
issues in the first months of his new term, when he plans to push for stricter
gun control and a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
The coming legislative battles are certain to expose
even more division in the party. And with establishment Republicans and Tea
activists at times speaking as if they are from different parties
altogether, concern is spreading throughout the ranks that things could get
worse before they get better.
can’t stay exactly where it is and stick its head in the sand and
ignore the fact that the country is changing,” said Ralph Reed, the founder of
the Faith and Freedom Coalition and onetime leader of the Christian Coalition.
“On the other hand, if the party were to retreat on core, pro-family stands and
its positions on fiscal responsibility and taxes, it could very quickly find
itself without a strong demographic support base.”
Having lost the popular vote in five of the last six
presidential elections, Republicans now face a country that is increasingly
younger, multiethnic and skeptical of Republican positions on some social
issues. The party’s deficit-cutting agenda relies heavily on reducing taxes for
the wealthy, which irks middle-class voters, and cutting spending on government
programs, like Social
that are popular with many voters.
Generational change is also robbing the party of some
of its most effective political positions. Same-sex
, which less than a decade ago was an issue that reliably drove
conservative voters to the polls in favor of Republicans, appears to be losing
its potency with an electorate increasingly comfortable with gay unions.
None other than Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker
who promised to fight for a constitutional ban against same-sex marriage during
the Republican presidential primaries, now says his party must come to terms
with the country’s rapidly shifting views on the subject.
“Walking around and pretending it doesn’t exist just
means you’re going to become irrelevant,” Mr. Gingrich said in an interview.
Prominent Republicans insist that if the party’s
disparate factions can come together around a set of economic, social and
foreign policy principles in the coming years, they stand a good chance of
retaking the presidency, making gains in Congress and repairing some of the
damage done through several years of bitter primary battles and divisive
“Republicans will get their mojo back when they define
themselves as the party of economic growth and upward mobility,” said Gov. Mitch
Daniels of Indiana, a Republican who will become the president of Purdue
University next week. Mr. Daniels said new lawmakers and governors — many of
whom are minorities and women — would reshape the Republican Party.
“The party, with all its problems — and I’m not
disputing them — has a really large and interesting crop of new faces,” he said.
“Ultimately, parties tend to be defined by their most visible personalities.”
Republicans have already demonstrated success in
midterm elections, when fewer people vote, and in state elections for
governorships and legislatures. In North Carolina, Pat McCrory, a Republican
former mayor of Charlotte, was sworn in as governor on Saturday after waging a
campaign that emphasized pragmatism over ideology.
“My message remained a Republican message,” Mr.
McCrory said, suggesting that national Republicans could learn a lesson from
state politicians. “But I did it with a tone of problem solving. I did it with a
tone of cooperation. I didn’t run one negative ad.”
But a changed tone alone may not do enough to smooth
over the very real disagreements in the Republican Party. And it is not clear
how the intraparty combatants can meet in the middle. For example, while some
Republicans argued that the tax vote last week enshrined almost all of the Bush-era
into permanent law and should be seen as a victory, harder-line
fiscal conservatives called it a shameful departure from the party’s two decades
of successful opposition to tax increases.
Clashes between Tea Party supporters in the House and
Speaker John A. Boehner during the budget battles last year led a dozen of them
to withhold their votes for speaker last week.
And across the country, deeply conservative
organizations angry about the concession on tax increases are pledging more, not
fewer, primary challenges to Republicans they believe are straying too far from
the party’s orthodoxy on taxes, guns, energy, immigration, spending and
“The gloves are off,” said Everett Wilkinson, a
founder of the Tea Party movement in Florida. “We’re going to challenge a lot of
the G.O.P. going forward,” he added, both in primaries and general elections.
Moderate Republicans are bracing for the challenges.
Steven C. LaTourette, who retired from his Ohio Congressional seat at the end of
the year and will become the president of the Republican Main Street
, said his group would raise money to defend middle-of-the-road
Republicans against the more conservative groups.
“There has to be an acceptance within the party of
people who have nonidentical views on every issue,” Mr. LaTourette said. “You
can’t be a national party unless you invite in and are accepting of members with
different visions. You can’t treat them as pariahs.”
As the new year begins, some of the party’s leaders in
Washington are searching for ways to address the philosophical divide and the
structural changes in the country that have caused such problems.
Some are talking about the need to find a positive
vision and agenda that represents conservative values but still speaks more
directly to the concerns of a broad section of voters — and manages to sell that
vision through leaders who can convince voters that the party wants to move
forward and not back.
Former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas
Republican who retired this year, said Republicans must shift their focus away
from issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights and immigration.
“The combination of our fiscal responsibility message
and the social issue message did not bring together a majority” in the
presidential election, she said. “It’s not so much coming to the middle. It’s
letting people have various views on personal issues and not requiring complete
fealty to all of those issues in a way that will drive people off.”
Other leaders have urgently ordered top-to-bottom
reviews to determine how the party lost touch with the most important and
fastest-growing voting blocs, including women and Hispanics, and how it can win
them over by the 2014 midterm elections.
It is now accepted in the party that it has failed to
keep up with Democrats in the competition for ascendant voting blocs of
Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and young people. Although exit polls
showed that Mr. Romney won nearly 60 percent of the white vote, Mr. Obama won
more than 70 percent of Asians and Hispanics and more than 90 percent of black
“If there’s one conclusion that’s going to come out of
this process, it’s that we have to be much more granular in our approach to
partners in the community like African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians,” said
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, who is overseeing
one of the most ambitious review efforts.