The GOP’s Mounting Woes
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The Fiscal Times
July 8, 2013

Republicans have firm control of the House of Representatives and can block legislation at will in the Senate with the filibuster; their prospects for the 2014 congressional elections are bright; and Barack Obama has no significant agenda and has his hands full with various foreign policy and national security-related problems.

On the surface, therefore, it looks as if the Republican Party is the one in better shape. But beneath the surface, Republicans have far deeper problems to deal with. While they will probably keep control of the House for the time-being, in some ways this contributes to its larger political and demographic problems, making them harder to acknowledge or fix.

The deepest Republican problem is demographic. It has become the party of whites-only at a time when the white share of the electorate is declining. The Latino and Asian populations are growing much faster than the white population, which is also aging rapidly and literally dying.

Smart Republicans have seen this coming for some time; it’s been obvious in the Census data for anyone who cared to look. That is a key reason why George W. Bush, at the behest of his top political adviser Karl Rove, pushed for immigration reform. But his own party torpedoed it in Congress under pressure from its base, which is obsessively opposed to illegal immigration, amnesty such as that implemented by Ronald Reagan in 1986, or a path to citizenship.

Even those who don’t share the Republican’s base’s attitude toward undocumented immigrants, however, are dubious about any reform that will likely increase the Democratic electorate—Latinos and Asian-Americans vote Democratic in large percentages. But others argue that permanently alienating the fastest-growing demographic group in America by rejecting any kind of immigration reform sentences the GOP to permanent minority status.

Republicans in the Senate have worked very hard to find an immigration reform that won’t further alienate Latinos and Asians by insisting upon heavily beefed-up border security as a sop to the Republican base. Reform-minded Republicans are also under pressure from a key Republican constituency, the business community, which strongly favors increased legal immigration to provide labor across the skill spectrum.

Although immigration reform passed the Senate after a difficult debate, principally among Republicans, its chances in the House are far more difficult. It’s doubtful that the Senate bill can even muster the support to be brought up for a vote at this point. 

This points to a reason why firm Republican control of the House has a downside. That control results largely from gerrymandering—the redistricting after the 2010 census gave the GOP many safe seats where the Republican was virtually guaranteed to win. With the nominating process heavily controlled by very conservative Tea Party members, the Republican class elected in 2010 is very ideological and unwilling to compromise on anything.

Former Republican Congressman Ray LaHood recently commented on the constraints that these members impose on the party’s leadership. Said LaHood in an interview with the Washington Post: “[There is] a small group, maybe 30, 40 in the House, who have come here to do nothing — and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve done nothing. They’ve accomplished nothing. . . . They didn’t come here to vote for solutions. They came here to do nothing, and they stand in the way of the president and his agenda.”

Former Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah gave a speech last week making similar points. He said that the Tea Party has already cost the GOP six seats in the Senate by nominating people much too far to the right to gain election even in red states.

It’s important to note that the Senate cannot be gerrymandered and Republicans running for the Senate must necessarily deal with racial and ethnic minorities that those running for the House in lily-white districts can easily ignore.

Big donors to the Republican Party are starting to become deeply frustrated by the unwillingness of the party’s primary voters and convention delegates to put electability at the top of their list of qualifications for nominees to high office. Moreover, many such nominees don’t appear to have been vetted very well and turned out to hold eccentric, if not completely crazy, views on various issues.

In Virginia, a number of large Republican donors have closed their pocketbooks to the Republican nominees for governor and lieutenant governor this year because of their frequent gaffes and impolitic views on abortion, homosexuality and other issues.

I think there are two problems here. First is that that wealthy people, the sort who write big checks to the Republican Party, are tired of losing winnable races because the grass roots has such an uncompromising attitude, preferring to lose than moderate their principles in any way.
Unlike the party’s base, the GOP’s wealthy donors don’t work or give money to the party just out of ideological or party loyalty. They want things in return—support for measures that aid their businesses. That often requires legislation to be passed, which means cutting deals with Democrats. Scorched earth opposition to compromise with Democrats on anything, which the Republican base favors, is therefore not good for business.

Secondly, wealthy Republicans tend to be much more socially liberal than the party’s base. They generally support equal rights for gays, reasonable restrictions on guns, immigration reform and other issues anathema to the base. While wealthy Republicans are still in sync with the base on economic issues such as budget and tax cuts, those are fading in importance as the economy recovers and the deficit falls.

Given that nothing can stop the demographic trends that are slowly but surely weakening the GOP’s ability to win the White House, the party has little choice but to reform or die at the presidential level. The sooner that process begins, the sooner the party will see another Republican in the White House. Since that process hasn’t started yet, GOP prospects for 2016 have to be considered poor at this point.

Bruce Bartlett’s columns focus on the intersection of politics and economics. The author of seven books, he worked in government for many years and was senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House.