Despite Its Problems, Don't Count the GOP Out

Despite Its Problems, Don't Count the GOP Out
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Times appear to be tough for the Republican Party. A recent Harvard-Harris poll reveals that only 29 percent of Americans approve of the job the GOP is doing and the Pew Research Center has just found that Democrats are now viewed as the better party to handle problems on 12 key political issues — ranging from terrorism and the economy to abortion and the environment. 

In the minds of many Americans, the Democratic Party has long held an advantage on social issues like health care and the environment, while the GOP has maintained significant support when it comes to security, foreign policy, and trade agreements.  

While the 12 issues examined by Pew do not represent every possible policy area, and exclude national defense and the military, they do represent a broad swath of subjects including taxes, the budget, and immigration — all regarded as the most important issues facing the nation today. Unusually, Democrats were deemed to be better than Republicans in dealing with terrorism, trade, gun control, and the economy in general. 

But despite this new reality, the GOP is not in as bad shape as it appears. 

First, despite the party’s low ratings, Republican leadership is expendable. The Harvard-Harris poll found that just 53 percent of Republicans approve of the party itself — a number far lower than the 68 percent of Democrats who approve of their own party. Also, 68 percent of Republicans see the GOP leadership as divisive, and 75 percent of Republicans believe that the leadership is out of touch with the views of actual GOP voters. Only 39 percent of Republicans say that its leadership represents their own views. So it seems that the GOP can, and needs to, jettison its toxic and seemingly dysfunctional leadership. 

Second, Americans are not particularly happy with, or flocking to, the Democrats either. Only 39 percent of Americans approve of the Democratic Party and public trust in the government remains close to recorded lows, with only 20 percent of Americans saying that they trust the government to do what’s right always or most of the time. Moreover, since 2007, a clear majority of Americans do not believe that the Republican or Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, and this fall, 61 percent of Americans believed in the need for a third party. 

It should not be surprising, then, that when Gallup asks Americans to state their party identification, this year a plurality of 42 percent say that they are Independents with only 29 percent identifying as Democrats and 27  percent as Republicans. This general pattern has been consistently the case since 2010, making it clear that the Democrats do not have an identification advantage whatsoever. Americans have left the parties in droves and clearly want something more from themselves. The market should correct for this: Party platforms will change to capture more votes, and the parties will evolve.  

Finally, unlike the ideologically incoherent, politically fractured, identity-politics-laden Democratic Party that is searching for itself, the GOP has a remarkably solid set of core ideological positions based on real ideas and values that cross-cut numerous socio-economic and demographic cleavages. While there are certainly factions within the party and certain social issues that seemingly divide the party in bizarre ways, Republicans still generally embrace the ideas of limited government, the value of private enterprise, individualism and communal responsibility, political accountability and strong and vigilant defense.  

In contrast, the post-Obama Democratic Party is searching for its voice and has temporarily built a coalition based on righting past wrongs under President Obama. However, policy and a stable partnership of many groups cannot succeed by being based primarily on ideas of harm, redistribution, and narrow narratives that accentuate differences.  

The GOP has a strong foundation that can and should guide its members’ ideas on numerous issues from taxation and globalization to social policy and community development. These ideas are timeless in terms of thinking about government and society and provide critical building blocks for policy. They also inform how the GOP must approach the ever-changing political arena. If Republicans can return to their real roots and rebuild the party with their beliefs in individual initiative and enterprise, and with a government that supports them by staying out of the way, the GOP will easily have the edge. The Gallup data demonstrates that Americans need something more, and that the GOP could provide what they need. By comparison, Democrats do not have as strong a platform. 

So, despite President Trump’s incredibly low approval ratings, the nationwide uproar that GOP leaders are facing on both health care and tax policy, the recent Pew findings in favor of the Democrats should be seen as a wake-up call and as a huge opening for the GOP. Americans want a party that works for, and speaks to, them, and they do not have it now. With the right leadership, the Republican Party can build on its solid core values and regain its prominence in the marketplace of ideas. The chaos of today means that change is possible. This is an opportunity the GOP cannot afford to waste.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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