POLITICS

GOP’s leadership challenge: lessons from the UK

 

michaelgerson@washpost.com

It is often argued, including by me, that the GOP needs its own Bill Clinton or Tony Blair — a leader to reposition the party and reinvigorate its political appeal. But if these figures are examples of successful reform, British Prime Minister David Cameron is a warning of its perils.

Cameron set out to modernize the Conservative Party. He has found that not everyone is happy to be modernized.

The Tory base is tetchy. Some of this is due to a perception that Cameron is insufficiently skeptical of European integration — an issue without exact parallel in American politics. But Cameron’s embrace of environmentalism and gay marriage has also caused criticism from older, less cosmopolitan party regulars. The quarrel has been fed by a (disputed) quote from a source close to the prime minister dismissing Tory activists as “swivel-eyed loons.”

A xenophobic third party — the UK Independence Party — has collected supporters falling off the Tory right.

The lesson for the Republican Party is sobering: A political coalition being stretched is at risk of being shattered.

For the GOP — beating against heavy demographic and generational tides — the attempt to modernize is unavoidable. In the next few elections, the ebb might be overcome with just the right presidential candidate, in just the right political circumstance. But in the long run, Republicans are borne away from power. There won’t be enough white and gray voters to win national elections.

The fundamentalist approach to reforming the GOP — an oversimplified Reaganism, advocated in the tone of Barry Goldwater — would only hasten the decline. It is an appeal to an electorate increasingly confined to Republican primaries.

But parties generally don’t get to reformulate their appeal from scratch. While Republicans can’t win with their base alone, they also can’t win without it. Religious conservatives, for example, are the single largest constituency within the GOP, and compose about a quarter of the entire electorate. Such voters are not baggage thrown overboard to lighten the ship; they are planks in the hull.

So the Republican Party is left with a challenge: It needs to become more socially inclusive without becoming socially liberal. Some think (or hope) that this is impossible. But it is only very difficult.

Some of this adjustment concerns policy. The GOP will need to welcome new Americans and champion their economic and social mobility. It will need to remain true to the stable, pro-life convictions of its strongest supporters, while recognizing broad shifts taking place on gay rights among younger Americans, even within the Republican base. And it will need to speak to the concerns of working-class families who are the real swing voters in national elections.

Conservative principles must be applied to new problems, such as stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs and routine educational failure.

But the Republican readjustment will also require a leader of a certain type. There is one combination that makes this transformation work at a national level: a reform-minded Republican who has the sympathy of religious conservatives. It is the profile of a candidate who can both get past the primaries and win a presidential election.

This would involve an imaginative leadership maneuver. A Republican reformer cannot use religious conservatives as a foil. He or she will need to appeal to religious conviction as a motivation for reform. This is not as far-fetched as it might first seem.

Catholics, of all political varieties, are hounded by a theological commitment to the common good. American evangelicals have had incarnations as abolitionists and prairie populists. A Republican candidate proposing prison reform, or improvements to the foster care system, or solutions to the dropout problem, could appeal to religious conservatives while making unexpected political outreach.

A few are trying. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., invokes Catholic themes when talking about the need to promote economic mobility.

Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has made a persistent religious case for immigration reform. “Our faith has always been about compassion and it compels you to do something,” he has argued. And he isn’t just a voice in the wilderness. According to a recent survey, 56 percent of white evangelicals support a path to earned citizenship.

These instances, however, remain rare. Few GOP prospects are fighting to occupy this ground. But it is the creative response to the Republican reform dilemma to make religious conviction a source of outreach. And it might accomplish something Cameron has not: making the party’s base a participant in the party’s modernization.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  • SYRIA

    Turning our backs on atrocities

    For every dissident and defector I’ve encountered, there is a moment when observation begins to feel like complicity — when remaining a bystander involves culpability.

  •  
MCT

    MIDTERM ELECTIONS

    Time for voters to come to their senses

    The boys and girls of Congress are returning from summer camp — er, Capitol Hill — to their real homes where they will 1) raise money and plead to be returned to camp; 2) stress how much they hate the nation’s political polarization; and 3) pledge never to compromise their beliefs.

  • CONGRESS

    Senators earn an ‘A’ for sexual assault bill

    Sen. Marco Rubio doesn’t have much time for Democrats. But he does have two daughters. And so it was that Wednesday morning, he found himself standing in solidarity with a bipartisan group of senators that included Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill as they announced legislation to curb the scourge of sexual assault on U.S. campuses.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category