Political parties are in the business of winning elections. The Republican Party lost a Presidential in 2012 and an important, contested Governor’s race in Virginia this year. Part of the narrative behind those losses is the disconnect between Republicans and Tea Party members. If Republicans don’t bridge that gap between now and 2016, it will be President Hillary in a walk.
The Tea Party movement in America, while not a formal party, is like other third parties in American history: expressions of discontent with the major parties. Third parties have come and gone based in large part on whether the major parties were effectively addressing the issues of the day.
For example, the Republican Party was borne of the Whig Party’s failure to take a bold enough stand against slavery in opposition to the Democrats support of slavery. In the late 1970s, government was so inept that the Independent Party presidential candidate John Anderson came out of the gate with 19% poll numbers and looked formidable. A decade later, the Reform Party arose when neither the Republicans nor Democrats took Americans’ concerns about fiscal matters seriously. The rise in the number of voters registering Independent or Decline to State over the last 15 years is in large part caused by the failures of the two major parties.
The Republican establishment, like it or not, needs to realize that the Tea Party movement is not going away. At its root, the Tea Party movement exists because government has grown too large and because of the out-of-control nature of our finances dwarfs what Ross Perot used to decry. Neither of those reasons will go away any time soon and therefore neither will the Tea Party or their sentiments.
The Republican Party needs to understand the basic mathematics of that political reality. Despite all the enmity on the right towards Obama and his first term, Romney got over 3 million less votes than McCain – no right-winger he. Far too many of the votes that didn’t come out for Romney were on the right – not lost in the center.
On the other side of the ledger, Hillary for President in 2016 and the Media push for the first woman president will likely provide Democrats with a boost. It may not be as strong for the Democrats as for Obama’s first victory because the economy will be so bad, ObamaCare will be that bad, the youth vote won’t be as excited and Obama may well have destroyed the allure of voting for a “first.” Nevertheless, unless Republicans find a way to boost turnout on the Right, simple math says they will lose again.
Not surprisingly, Republicans can learn from the Reagan experience for guidance. While it is true that Reagan faced the strong challenge of needing to get votes from the center, it is also true that prior to his candidacy, conservatives were unenthusiastic about the Republican Party after the Nixon/Ford years and so many years in the minority in Congress. To win, Reagan not only had to persuade Independents in the middle, he also had to boost turnout on the Right.
Reagan did just that. He rose above the divisions in the country and in his party. He changed the existing paradigm that was discouraging voters. He found common ground between “mainstream” Republicans, Independents, disconcerted conservatives and even Democrats. Reagan did it so well, that John Anderson didn’t win a single precinct in 1980. Reagan won electoral landslides with conservative support and even created Reagan Democrats.
The math facing Reagan was just as difficult as the reality facing Republicans today. To overcome that math, Reagan didn’t push away or pick fights with conservative voters – the discontented voters of his era on the Right. Instead, Reagan won because his campaign used strong and well-defined ideas to consolidate the right-of-center voters, attract most Independents and split Democrats. Today’s Republicans must do the same. That is the simple math of it all.
Making their task even harder, today’s Republicans can’t use all the issues championed by Reagan. After numerous equivocal and long wars, Americans today likely will not rally towards a more aggressive defense posture like they did for Reagan. Beyond that, hopefully we will not have an equivalent issue to the Iran hostage crisis.
Republicans, however, can capitalize on two key elements of the Reagan message. First, the GOP has to restore economic prosperity back to the center of American political discussion. Reagan did that for Republicans and the nation. President Obama and many Democrats, by contrast, firmly believe they can create – and may have – a governing coalition out of those dependent on government. That is more important to them than those voters’ standard of living.
Republicans must find their private enterprise voice again. They have to champion prosperity by advocating pro-growth policies. That voice will help solidify mainstream Republicans while attracting conservative voters. It also will attract job-hungry Independents and some Tea Party voters.
The other issue Republicans must champion – in positive tones – is the streamlining of government. Government reform – before that term was made less than meaningful by modern politics – was key to Reagan’s victory. To win over a sufficient number of Tea Party voters – and therefore the election – Republicans will need to adopt a serious effort (a) to reduce the scope of what government does, and (b) to save taxpayers money. Part of that task will be easy because of the overreach of Obama’s IRS, NSA, and HHS. The impending failure of ObamaCare will also cry out for a far less government-centric response.
Ultimately, Republicans will have to put clear plans on the table to reduce several bloated government programs. I don’t mean simply reducing earmarks. I mean taking a program, explaining to Americans (1) who it is supposed to help, (2) why it isn’t helping them, (3) posing a streamlined solution, and (4) explaining how much their efforts will save Americans wearied by Obama’s big-government, staggering waste.
The latter need – detailing plans for saving Americans money – cannot be underestimated. Such an effort will attract many non-ideological Independent voters who crave sensible solutions. Unless and until Republicans in Washington seriously prove their commitment to reduce the scope and cost of government, they won’t attract enough Tea Party voters to beat Hillary. The math is that simple. Whatever they are doing now is not enough – whether they like it or not. They need to get far more serious. That is the common ground upon which Tea Party voters can be found and the election won – a high ground Reagan would have taken.
There is no doubt Republicans must make other considerable political efforts as well, such as connecting with more minority voters and women voters in a sincere fashion. They must also at least match the technological get-out-the-vote abilities of the Democrats among other things.
The need to reach common ground with the Tea Party movement in 2016 is chief among them. A comprehensive plan to reduce the size and scope of government will not only impress voters, as it did under Reagan, it will be good for the Country.
In the 1970s, people doubted whether the tide of government could be turned. The pundits and the Media doubted whether Reagan could meet the challenge of having to gain voters in the middle and on the right. Reagan’s mantra was that “It can be done.” If Republicans want to win 2016, it must be done again.