GOP Can Win in '16 by Following Reagan's Path

GOP Can Win in '16 by Following Reagan's Path
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Two highly intelligent political analysts, Bill Kristol and Peter Wehner, have written columns predicting Republican success in 2014 but defeat in 2016. Wow. We're not even in that cycle yet and already the GOP's chances are being written off.

Mr. Wehner’s piece borrows heavily from a memo produced by Doug Sosnik, a well-respected Democratic analyst. Sosnik’s analysis is thorough and cites facts that do not bode well for Republicans, namely the “Blue Wall” of states that have voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992, the increase in the women’s vote (see the Democrats’ “War on Women”), and Republican inability to make inroads with young people and minorities. It is undeniable, as Mr. Wehner argues, that “the GOP coalition is shrinking.”

Yet it is far too early to throw in the towel. There is reason for optimism for 2016 despite the cold reality of these trends.

Start with the fact that it is hard for a party to win three national elections in a row with a non-incumbent heading the ticket. The only examples where the incumbent party has won such a race since the beginning of the 20th century have been 1908 (Taft succeeding Roosevelt), 1928 (Hoover succeeding Coolidge) and 1988 (Bush succeeding Reagan). In all three cases, the incumbent was enormously popular, public attitudes were positive, and the party in power’s candidate vowed to carry on the policies of his predecessor.

Such will not be the case in 2016. President Obama currently has an approval rating of 43% which is not likely to improve. Thanks to his policies, the economic recovery will limp along at best, with unemployment and deficits remaining high and growth unacceptably low. Likewise the reality of Obamacare will see premiums rise and patients’ medical choices reduced. Who beside Joe Biden will campaign as Obama’s heir and successor the way Bush 41 did in 1988? The president will remain just as toxic for Democrats in 2016 as he is this year.

The rest, as they say, is up to us. Republicans will need a transformative message if we’re to complete the job and elect a Republican president. The utter failure of the Obama administration’s collectivist mindset provides such an opening. Economic opportunity and individual achievement must be the core of a new inclusive philosophy that seeks to offer to the new “coalition of the ascendant” the ability to achieve their dreams and ambitions. Government policies must facilitate this goal, not impede it.

To negate the Blue Wall, Republicans must campaign in states that have been off limits for two decades. We’ll need to be on college campuses and really compete for the votes of non-Caucasian minorities. Some will suggest an “enhanced status quo” strategy of squeezing every last ounce out of our existing coalition. We’ve already done that -- in 2004. That option is doomed to failure next time and can’t possibly prepare conservatives to govern successfully in this century.

For those who think such a forward strategy cannot succeed, consider the situation faced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Candidate Reagan then was not the transformative figure he eventually became. In 1979, he was mostly unknown and thought to be too old (Hillary Clinton would be one year younger than Reagan if she were elected next time), unsophisticated in the ways of governing, and far to the right of the political mainstream.

Yes, President Carter was unpopular, just as Obama is today. However, Carter was thought to be a solid bet to win the South again, which was Reagan’s strongest area and the region most compatible with Republican priorities. Labor and big city Democratic machines were formidable in preserving Democratic dominance in the big industrial states in the Northeast and Midwest. Like today, self-identified Democrats far outnumbered Republicans in national surveys. In fact the gap was much greater then, exceeding double digits most of the time. The party still suffered from the effects of Watergate and the resignation of a president driven from office by a bipartisan consensus.

Yet Reagan won an overwhelming victory because he campaigned everywhere including New England, Harlem, working-class wards in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and throughout the South, with a message that won support from young people, working-class voters and conservative Christians, groups that were outside the Republican coalition at the time. He focused on values that appealed to all Americans who were searching for hope and a distinctly different approach to solving America’s problems. Years later, Reagan summed up his way of looking at America: “Our destinations are more important than our origins.”

That still sums up the difference between the parties, and that is the conversation we must have if Republicans are to compete seriously in 2016 and beyond. 

Frank J. Donatelli was assistant to President Reagan for political and intergovernmental affairs and is a past deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. He grew up in Pennsylvania.

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