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Lipstick on an Elephant

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Which brings us to Plan D: What if the GOP doesn’t change at all? Certainly that seems to be the case thus far, for all the public clamoring of conservative pundits for a more inclusive and constructive brand. The base is still screaming for a border fence at town-hall meetings. Diversity remains a subject of internal prattle, not practice. At the House’s Williamsburg retreat, a panel on “successful communication with minorities and women” had a Latino moderator, two Latino women, three white men, no white women, and no blacks. The participants in a postelection National Review panel on “What Is Wrong With the Right?” were six men, no women. Even a putative young reformer like Jindal, who has demanded that Republicans stop being “the stupid party,” has pointedly said that the GOP should not “moderate, equivocate, or otherwise abandon our principles”—specifically listing abortion, marriage, and stopping “European socialism” among the nonnegotiable articles of faith. The country, he says, “doesn’t need two Democratic parties”—echoing Barry Goldwater’s old battle cry that America needs “a choice, not an echo.”

Nowhere is the Republicans’ commitment to providing a clear choice more visible than in their intransigence on sequestration. In this Beltway battle, the newly reelected president holds all the cards when it comes to public opinion. A Pew poll in late February showed that, by a large margin, voters would blame Republicans in Congress over Obama for the pain inflicted by across-the-board federal budget cuts. A mere 19 percent of Americans agree with the GOP position that tax increases should be off the table in any deficit negotiations. But the Republicans nonetheless stuck to their script. They were willing to lose the public-relations war, willing even to be hated. Might this be because they have a longer view?

After Goldwater lost by a landslide in 1964—a far more sweeping defeat than Romney’s—the GOP took a hit in public stature that makes its present travails look tame. In the account of the journalist Theodore H. White, Goldwater’s chief speechwriter, Karl Hess, couldn’t even get a patronage job as an elevator operator on the Hill in 1965 because of his association with the debacle. Soul-searching moderates and Establishment types of the early sixties, fearing that the GOP would go the way of the Whigs, behaved much as their counterparts have been doing now, calling for more inclusiveness and less “obstruction and negativism,” according to Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s invaluable recent history of moderate Republicanism’s demise. Charles Percy, the Illinois centrist who lost his 1964 governor’s race, argued that fellow reformers must “take this party away from being a sort of Anglo-Saxon, white Protestant party.” Even the conservatives running the Texas GOP agreed that they had to attract new constituencies like “blue-collar workers and Latin Americans,” as the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described those constituencies back then.

But then as now, it was the hard right, not the moderates, that constituted the party’s base and the source of its grassroots energy. Then as now, the GOP was determined to pander to the Old South rather than court minorities. (Goldwater received 6 percent of the black vote; so did Romney.) Then as now, the right could argue that most Americans still preferred the bedrock conservative plank of limited government to the activist Washington offered by Democrats. In a poll taken in August of 1964, Lyndon Johnson received high marks as a leader and was unambiguously headed toward a resounding victory over the unpopular, shoot-from-the-hip Goldwater. But the same poll also showed that most Americans were opposed to the swollen federal budget and LBJ’s big-government projects: civil rights, the war on poverty, medical care for the aged. In our own time, polls on and since Election Day have revealed a similar disconnect: Support for Obama and for nearly all Democratic policies is contradicted by clear majorities who think government does “too much” and threatens “personal rights and freedoms.”

Conservatives have solid reasons to believe that over time their position will prevail if they wait out the hits they take along the way. That’s a lesson that was learned after 1964. Much as right-wing purists like Mark Levin and Erick Erickson rail against Karl Rove’s deviations from tea-party orthodoxy in 2013, so Goldwater’s loyalists and heirs stood firm in defeat, fending off their party’s erstwhile reformers. In the 1964 postelection issue of National Review, Ronald Reagan, still two years away from being elected governor of California, condemned “traitors” who might try to reclaim the party from true conservatives. Sixteen years later, he and the modern conservative movement had driven most of the “traitors” out of the party hierarchy and taken charge.

These days, the GOP has no new Reagan as yet waiting in the wings. It faces a demographic cliff that may take far longer than two years to scale, no matter how many blind mountain climbers deliver pep talks—especially if Republicans in Congress can’t even mobilize on immigration reform this year. But the party controls far more of American governance, federal and local, than it did after Goldwater’s defeat. It has continued to push the country—and both the current and previous Democratic president—incrementally to the right. Whatever the acronym stands for, the GOP remains nothing if not true to itself. It could not be rebranded even if it wanted to change—and it does not want to. A cosmetic face-lift would fool no one. Its current leaders are more faithful than ever—more faithful than Nixon, Ford, and both George Bushes ever were—to the principles laid down by Goldwater and Reagan. In the end, the party’s best bet may be not to do something but just stand there until history cycles back to it once more.


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