Conventional wisdom has the Grand Old Party on political life support, with its media profile dominated not by ideas and policy but by sideshows: infidelity distractions in South Carolina and Nevada, and a soon-to-be-former governor of Alaska threatening a conservative revival tour of the Lower 48. Dan Schnur of the USC College, who led communications for McCain 2000 and now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, believes that there is a way out of the wilderness. It involves three major steps:
1. Create a new economic agenda.
2. Stop the infighting.
3. Pursue swing voters with fresh thinking.
“The most diplomatic way to say this is that the Republican Party circa 2009 has massive potential for growth,” Schnur states. “However, the party has much deeper problems than can be solved in a four-year or even eight-year period.”
He points to the long years the Democratic Party spent in the wilderness during the 1970s and 1980s: “Those Democrats were struggling with whether to abandon the economic principles of Franklin Roosevelt or to cling to them.”
“It took a lot of years until a very smart guy called Bill Clinton came along and said the answer isn’t to abandon those principles, but it’s not to cling to them mindlessly either; it’s to update those principles for a different set of challenges than those that existed in the 1930s,” Schnur says.
Just as it took Democrats a long time to figure out that they needed to update the party’s ideas, the Republican Party is heading toward a similar crossroads.
Step One: The Economy
Republicans should admit that they have a major problem, Schnur says. “Their economic framework was developed more than 30 years ago, at a time when Detroit was the economic engine of this country.
“After the Wall Street meltdown last September, it was painfully clear that there really wasn’t a lot being said that was much different from what leading Republicans had been saying in 1990… or in 1980,” Schnur notes. “Voters understood intuitively that the Republican Party was offering once-successful yet dated solutions for an entirely new set of problems.”
Schnur believes that the first step in a Republican rebound is for the party to take a close look at its existing set of economic principles, then revise them to meet the challenges presented in a technology-driven, global economy.
Step Two: Build a Bigger, More Inclusive Tent
Next, the party must stop the infighting, and build tolerance of differences on social and moral issues.
“Republicans are in for a period in the immediate future where there really is a pitched fight about whether to be an inclusive party,” Schnur observes. “Absent the presence of a unifying economic agenda, it becomes much easier to sit around and argue about abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage.
“That kind of intramural infighting is going to continue until there is someone to remind party members there are more important principles that unite them than these issues which are dividing them,” he adds.
“Both parties — Democrats on issues such as same-sex marriage, or Republicans on issues such as abortion rights — tend to do better when they allow room for disagreement within the party on social and cultural issues, and unify around a common economic agenda.”
Step Three: Focus on Cultivating Swing Voters and New Demographic Groups
A shrinking party base raises the stakes for persuading undecided voters, Schnur says.
He feels the two most difficult demographic challenges for Republicans right now are Latino voters and young voters. Cultivating these groups will require changes in thinking.
For example, Hispanic Americans may see immigration reform as an ethical and moral issue that must be addressed, Schnur says. And he notes the “Will & Grace-ification” of young voters, who are demonstrably more accepting of same-sex marriage than are older voters.
At the basic level, what voters want from a party or candidate “is a very specific vision of how individuals and families will succeed and thrive if that party and that candidate are put into power,” Schnur explains. “Broad and gauzy rhetoric isn’t enough. Voters need tangible answers to their problems before they’ll be willing to give Republicans their trust again.”
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