As traditional arguments for voting Republican — like believing it will bring about limited, efficient and pragmatic government — have collapsed, the GOP has relied on a politics of fear to win elections amidst low turnout and an increasingly apathetic public. In 2016, the politics of fear will fall short of the historic nature of Hillary Clinton’s inevitable candidacy. The potential for the first female president and her impeccable qualifications — Secretary of State, a senator and First Lady — mean that the eventual Republican candidate will have to adopt a more positive, moderate form of messaging. In order to chart a compelling path for the GOP to the White House, it is first necessary, however, to deconstruct how the politics of fear manifests itself and how it fails.
Congressional Republicans have been desperately trying to prove they can govern as well as obstruct, though their recent actions have done little to change their perception. Republicans’ rabid opposition to President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration has led to their latest exercise in brinkmanship: failing to fund the Department of Homeland Security while at the same time bemoaning the national security threats of ISIL and terrorist plots in Europe. This is an exemplar of how GOP politics are guided by fear and xenophobia. The aging, white conservative base, to which “executive amnesty” is anathema, reflexively oppose comprehensive immigration reform — in spite of its widely documented potential to grow the economy — because of their fear of those that are different from them.
In 2012, former Gov. Mitt Romney deposited into the bottomless bank of conservative fear by famously promising economic catastrophe if Obama won reelection. Predictably his predictions of “crippling unemployment” and “another recession” have proved at best delusional or at worst knowingly demagogic as unemployment has plummeted to 5.6 percent, gas prices have fallen and home values have surged. Furthermore, conservative opposition to Obamacare has also been predicated on fear-mongering rhetoric that claimed the market-based health care law would cause historic destruction to the economy. This is a claim that now looks as off the mark and anachronistic as conservative opposition to gay marriage.
Even attempts to define the GOP as the party of limited, fiscally responsible government seem in vain. The myth that Republicans will bring about lower taxes for all has pervaded for decades but cannot long defy political realities across the nation. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts, which were heralded by conservatives everywhere, have resulted in fiscal turmoil and likely deep cuts to state education. Furthermore, a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study showed “Most of the benefits went to high-income households” and “Kansas even raised taxes for low-income families to offset a portion of the revenue loss.” This exposes how Republicans’ rhetoric of lower taxes for all actually translates to benefits for special interests, corporations and the wealthy but even greater tax burdens on the working and middle classes.
After losing the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections, Republicans need to wake up and smell the coffee. Claiming false mandates by pointing toward midterm elections only reinforces the reality that Republicans thrive when democracy (voter turnout) does poorly, but when a broader, more diverse electorate appears, they get trounced.
So if the politics of fear and the myth of “limited government” are destined for spectacular failure, what can the GOP do now to best position themselves for 2016? Having learned that the more Republican candidates speak, the more voters know about and are put off by their out-of-touch, radical policy positions, the Republican National Committee has sensibly moved to keep their candidates in the shadows by lowering the number of primary debates from 22 to nine. The best advice for Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and other serious contenders for 2016 is simple: abandon unpopular conservative positions on settled issues like immigration reform, gay marriage and Obamacare and deracialize its implicit messaging even if that angers the base in the short term. In other words, if the GOP seriously wants to compete with Clinton for Independents, minorities and young voters, it needs to shift to the center and become more like the Democratic Party in all but name.
Ben Rudgley is a Viewpoint writer.