Changing U.S. culture challenges the GOP


Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has been a leader among conservatives. The former congressman has led Indiana to cut individual and corporate income taxes, abolished the inheritance tax and expanded the school-choice program. He carved out a remarkable template for Medicaid reform that requires individuals to make a financial contribution to a health savings account; it is the basis of consumer-driven healthcare. The Hoosier state has done well.

So it is rather surprising that a smart political player like Pence would not have seen the ferocious backlash coming with the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) which he signed into law to great conservative fanfare. Squirming during an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Pence could not say whether, under this new law, Indiana was condoning discrimination. His nonanswer condemned him and his state. The response from state and national corporate leaders as well as gay rights and other liberal groups was fast and furious: Rescind the law or else. On Thursday, state lawmakers approved changes to the law designed to meet objections and Pence signed the bill.

Indiana’s dilemma highlights the difficulty of balancing the demands of rapid, cultural change in America. It is a struggle of competing values: the predominantly White, cultural conservatives versus an increasingly diverse and culturally liberal.

Cultural conservatives feel besieged by the change; religious freedom was not a controversial topic just a decade ago. Today, it can be. It speaks to the rapid rise in power of the LGBT movement which is demanding equality under the law.

The conservative Christian community demands the same. They may not agree with each other, but they both should be protected by law. It can be remedied by passing two laws, one that protects the LGBT community from discrimination and another that protects religious freedom. It is a good compromise but it leaves both sides dissatisfied.

Pence’s position presents the huge challenge for Republican leaders who need to balance the demands of their White, conservative primary voter who is at odds with the rest of the country. Republicans can’t survive just with them, they need to broaden the base.

“The times are changing, demographics are changing and the game on the ground is changing,” said Whit Ayres of North Star Opinion Research on MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier this week. Ayres acknowledges that the formula that worked for George W. Bush does not work today because the face of the electorate has changed.

Ayres, who has authored a new book, 2016: and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America, emphasizes that the politics of inclusion is more important than ever, not just to attract minority voters but younger voters too. The cultural divide is generational.

Voters who are 30 years old lean Libertarian on social issues supporting comprehensive immigration reform, gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he reconsidered signing his state’s RFRA bill, in part, because his son signed a petition asking him to veto the law. He sounded sincere. It is a lesson for Gov. Pence to learn. The other challenge for the GOP is with Hispanic voters.

The Hispanic population is young and growing. Almost a quarter of all babies born in the United States are from undocumented Hispanics and these families are moving to rural towns between Alabama and Wisconsin. If it weren’t for them, these towns would all but disappear. Two out of five of rural Hispanic American babies are poor.

Why should this matter to Republicans? It is within their power to pass comprehensive immigration reform which could change the fortunes of these families and many smaller towns. It might even help Republicans woo Hispanic voters, if they would only reach out to them. They have to.

In 2012, Hispanics comprised 8.4 percent of the electorate and that number rises yearly while the share of non-Hispanic White voter continues to decline. Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the White vote; he lost, in part, because President Obama overwhelmed him with the minority vote. To win 2016, the Republican candidate will need to carry 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to compensate for the decline of the traditional base voter.

It comes down to building bridges. Gov. Hutchinson is doing it, calmly and with resolve. There is no ruckus in Arkansas like there is in Indiana. If the GOP follows Hutchinson’s lead, they might find a method to deal with the madness.