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After Tough Year, Republicans Mull Next Steps

December 16, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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After a historic 2008 presidential election, the Republican Party is facing new questions on how it should shape its agenda in the years to come. The co-authors of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" discuss the road ahead for the GOP.

GWEN IFILL: As Democrats prepare to take charge in Washington, Republicans are still licking their wounds, trying to figure out what went wrong. Two conservative authors who saw the defeats coming believe they have mapped out a course to recovery.

Their book is “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.” The co-authors are Ross Douthat, a senior editor at the Atlantic, and Reihan Salam, an associate editor at the magazine.

And welcome to you both.

What is the current state right now of the Republican Party, Ross?

ROSS DOUTHAT, co-author, “Grand New Party”: Well, the GOP is, in large part, a victim of its own success. And I mean its own success going back decades now.

If you look at the issues that the Republican majority, now defunct Republican majority, was built on, issues in domestic politics, ranging from crime to middle-class taxes, to the state of the welfare system, and so on, these are issues on which Republicans made a lot of progress and won lot of victories over the years.

But as a result, the GOP is left without issues to talk about in domestic policy. And you saw this play out during this election campaign, where you had an election that, you know, two years ago, people assumed 2008 was going to be a foreign policy election, but in fact it ended up being a domestic policy election and an election that turned on the economy.

And John McCain was — he was flailing, frankly. He didn’t have anything to say. And that’s been a problem for Republican candidates more or less down the line of late.

GWEN IFILL: Reihan, the Republicans lost in this general election by age — young people went for the Democrats — amongst gender, independents. They lost among income, almost every possible geographic group. Was this a loss that was about John McCain or was it about the underpinnings of the Republican Party?

REIHAN SALAM, co-author, “Grand New Party”: I, unfortunately, think it was much deeper, more structural loss than about the particular personality. John McCain was probably the strongest candidate the Republicans could have fielded in this election because he had strong reputation of someone who connected with independent voters and someone who had, you know, demonstrated independence from Republican orthodoxy in a few important issues.

What went wrong in the GOP

GWEN IFILL: So what did Republicans do wrong? And what did they do right?

REIHAN SALAM: Well, in my view, what they did wrong is started a long time ago. Even in the late 1990s, there was a danger that the Republican Party was becoming an excessively regional and sectarian party.

And George W. Bush gave the Republicans a new lease on life, an opportunity to rethink the party's program, to connect with the burdens facing middle-class families now, you know, and tax cuts aren't the key issue that middle-class families care about.

They care a lot more, for example, about health insurance premiums and about a whole series of other issues that Republicans didn't want to talk about. They prefer talking about taxes and national security, but the country was talking about those kitchen-table issues.

GWEN IFILL: So, Ross, when you say they didn't -- that the Republicans didn't have issues to talk about, that's what you mean, they didn't have correct issues that people were listening to talk about?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Right. Republicans are very good at talking about national security, and they're very good about complaining about how Democrats are going to raise your taxes.

And so, whenever the Republicans get into an election cycle where voters want to talk about education or health care or, in this case, the financial crisis, the Republican -- the first instinct is to change the subject, to say, "Well, I know you want to talk about the cost of health care, but what I want to talk about is how Barack Obama's a socialist."

And in a sense, this Republican campaign, I mean, I think it was almost a parody of a bad Republican campaign. It sort of went beyond just the sort of -- the structural factors that were in play.

Yes, you know, any Republican candidate was going to have a tough time in this political environment. But the way John McCain campaigned and the way he tried to essentially avoid talking about the issues that were uppermost in most Americans' minds, I think, was -- you know, it was one of the worst campaigns in my lifetime, which isn't very long, but still.

Shifting focus to domestic issues

GWEN IFILL: But still. Let's talk about the course correction. What is it that the Republicans didn't do that they could have done or that they can do from here on out to kind of get back on track?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, what Republicans -- I mean, you know, you hate to be too simplistic about it, but, really, they need to talk about the issues that voters care about. And they need to find a way to essentially argue for reforms of government that address voters on core domestic policy issues.

GWEN IFILL: For instance?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, for instance, take -- well, take education, for instance, right, where, you know, Republicans have for a long time spent most of their energy talking about school vouchers, essentially talking about programs that would enable parents to choose private alternatives to public schools.

Now, there's a good conservative case to be made for school vouchers, but it isn't an issue that has traction or support, except in sort of very limited pockets of the country.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's look at the same -- the same question about how you go forward and talk about the demographics that we alluded to, young people in particular, Latinos, 67 percent of whom went Democrat this time, which was a switch. And how should the Republican Party be speaking to these groups who clearly fled this time?

REIHAN SALAM: Well, that's a very tough question, in part because when you're looking at the Latino vote, for example, this was a group that was heavily Democratic in the past, and George W. Bush seemed to move them over slightly.

And I think that, when you look at the future, I think it's important to emphasize you don't want to reach out to voters as young voters or as Latino voters or as women or as men. You want to reach out to voters in terms of their broad, shared interests.

When you look at the burdens facing working and middle-class families right now, they're shared burdens. Latinos voted for Barack Obama not because of any cultural affinity for him. In fact, those same voters oftentimes chose Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama by wide margins.

They voted for Barack Obama because they felt that he had more convincing answer on the economy. Republicans need to do exactly that. It's not something that's going to be fixed by more sophisticated ethnic outreach.

Opportunity for party realignment

GWEN IFILL: There's been a lot of discussion about Barack Obama's election signifying something which is post-racial. Is this a post-partisan moment, as well?

REIHAN SALAM: Unfortunately, no. I think that one real danger for the Republican Party is that the Republican base is veering far away from the mainstream of the country in terms of where it stands ideologically.

So there's going to be a lot of pressure on Republican politicians to stick to conservative orthodoxy, to only talk about national security and taxes. There's a real sense that McCain lost because he was not conservative enough.

And so I worry that, over the next few years, you're going to have Republicans who are going to be in an echo chamber, talking to themselves, and they're not going to be, you know, going to where the country is.

So that means that Republicans are going to be very, very tough with the Obama White House. They're going to be very oppositional, and they're not going to seem like pragmatic solutions-oriented politicians.

GWEN IFILL: So does this mean, Ross, then that we are looking at a fundamental realignment of the two parties? Or is this -- or should the Democrats not get too carried away?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, they shouldn't get too carried away. What we're looking at right now is an opportunity for realignment. And I think the big question for Democrats will be, does this end up turning out like the 1976 election or the 1980 election?

And if you go back to the mid-1970s, it was actually a landscape somewhat similar to the landscape we had now. You're coming often the Nixon administration, which was perceived as a, you know, corrupt and failed Republican White House. You had a big swing to the Democrats in Congress in 1974. And it was possible to imagine that sort of Republican realignment dissipating and, instead, becoming a long-term Democratic realignment.

But, instead, Jimmy Carter was a failure as president. He couldn't handle the economic crisis that he inherited, much like Barack Obama has inherited an economic crisis. And four years later, Reagan swept in, and you had the Republican revolution instead.

So the challenge for Obama -- and, you know, it's very easy for me to say sitting here -- but is to be Reagan and not be Jimmy Carter. And if he is Reagan, if he seizes that opportunity, then, yes, we Republicans could be looking at a long period in the wilderness.

GWEN IFILL: Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, the name of the book is "Grand New Party." Thank you both very much.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you, Gwen.

REIHAN SALAM: Thanks, Gwen.