The GOP’s Four Big Problems

Greg Sargent is annoyed by the conservative drumbeat that Democrats didn’t win a mandate last night. Barack Obama was reelected by a big margin. Democrats picked up seats in the Senate, something that seemed inconceivable as recently as a couple of months ago. Democrats made substantial gains in state legislatures. And a whole raft of liberal initiatives passed: a tax increase in California; marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado; and ratification of gay marriage in Maryland, Maine, and (probably) Washington. Here’s Greg:

What happened yesterday is very clear. Romney campaigned on a platform of repealing (and not replacing) Obamacare….readjusting the social contract at the core of Medicare….and dramatically reducing the amount the rich contribute towards the upkeep of government.

….Obama campaigned on the necessity of continuing to implement health reform….on preserving Medicare….and on the moral need for the rich to sacrifice a bit more to enable a more robust role for government in improving the lives of the less fortunate.

All of this was very explicit….People keep arguing that the campaign was regularly drawn into petty squabbles over offhand remarks by the candidates. But some of those squabbles — such as the battles over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech and Romney’s “47 percent” remarks — went directly to the heart of the basic ideological conflicts outlined above. Those supposedly petty battles actually embodied big, consequential arguments.

Indeed, Republicans themselves regularly said that this election was a “big choice” between “two very different visions for America.” That was also the regular refrain of pundits just after Romney chose Paul Ryan, the leading architect of the GOP’s overarching ideological blueprint for the country’s future. So by the lights of Republicans and pundits themselves, this outcome should be seen as a big choice by the American people — a big decision about the future direction of the country. Why, now that Obama has won a resounding victory, is this suddenly being talked about as a small, no-mandate election?

That’s all true. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Obama won the popular vote by a margin of 51-49 percent. The composition of the House stayed pretty much the same. Ditto for the Senate. By a slender margin, we find ourselves in almost exactly the same situation we were in before the election. It’s really hard to make the case for a mandate, even assuming you believe in mandates in the first place.

Which I don’t. When was the last time a second-term president was able to pass something really significant? You could make a case for tax reform in Reagan’s second term, but that’s about it.

But there is something else going on. Republicans really do have a problem, and they know it. Or, rather, an interconnected set of problems:

  • They’re obviously on the wrong side of history on gay marriage, and they’re losing young voters because of it.
  • The Hispanic population is growing, and they’re losing that too thanks to their xenophobic immigration policy.
  • Americans are tired of war, and (for better or worse) President Obama has proven hawkish enough that Republicans have lost their edge on national security issues. Mitt Romney more or less conceded that in the third debate by agreeing with practically everything Obama said.
  • The GOP policy of maximal obstruction is probably nearing the end of its shelf life. There are already signs that independent voters are exhausted by it, but the base of the party still demands it.

None of this is especially insightful. In fact, it’s practically banal. Everyone knows it. So there’s a sense in which it hardly matters if Obama “really” has a mandate. The Republican Party has a choice: either it tacitly acknowledges a mandate and reforms itself to fix the four big problems above, or else it withers further and faces a 2016 election in which the economy is good, the public is tired of crazy talk and mindless obstruction, and there will no longer be any question of whether anyone has a mandate. It will just be a question of counting votes.

I don’t expect the Republican Party to reform itself anytime soon. They’ve become a victim of their own media-driven nightmares about the end of America-as-we-know-it under Obama’s leadership, and too many of their supporters now believe this stuff for them to change their tune anytime soon. Nevertheless, change they must. And the sooner they start, the easier it will be.

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