Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Republicans set aside many differences — over immigration, gay rights and climate change, among other things — in their fervor to win the White House.
But after losing a second straight presidential campaign and squandering a prime opportunity to win control of the Senate, those combustible issues now are fueling a fight over the direction of the GOP and what Republicans, as a national party, should represent.
Mitt Romney had barely conceded defeat and walked off the stage in Boston when the rupture emerged, between those calling for drastic change and others who said the problem was not the Republican Party but its nominee.
Romney and his campaign team shoulder a generous share of the blame. He committed any number of blunders that, fairly or not, reinforced the image of the former Massachusetts governor as an uncaring and out-of-touch aristocrat.
His strategists erred by ceding the television waves for much of the early contest, leaving the Obama campaign and its allies to eagerly fill the void with depictions of Romney as a soulless corporate raider. The Republicans’ much-touted turnout effort was vastly overmatched by President Barack Obama’s state-of-the-art operation.
But the party’s problems go deeper than the failings of any individual or a single team of tacticians. For many voters in broad swaths of the country — throughout California and elsewhere along the Pacific Coast, across the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic states — the Republican brand is poison.
The party’s need to change that — and disagreement over the best way to do it — is likely to make the four years before the 2016 election highly contentious.
“You have to have a come-to-Jesus meeting at all levels, both state and national,” said Stuart Spencer, chief campaign strategist for Ronald Reagan, who has worked in and around Republican politics for more than half a century.
In the late 1990s, he began publicly urging the party to reconsider its hard-line stance on illegal immigration, warning — presciently, it turned out — of the damage it would do among Hispanic voters.
To win, a party has to reflect the nation it seeks to lead, Spencer said, and increasingly, the GOP seemed out of step with an electorate that every four years seemed to grow more ethnically varied and culturally broad-minded.
John Weaver, another veteran party strategist, was even more blunt.
“If we’re going to be anything but a regional, middle-aged white-man party, we have to do the obvious thing, which is, first, accept the reality that America is a diverse nation and we need to start selling to those people,” Weaver said. “There is climate change. Accept that. There are gay people in our midst, marrying one another. Get over it. ... The government isn’t going to deport 15 million (illegal immigrants), and they’re not going to deport themselves.”
Of course, what some see as pragmatism, others consider a fire sale of party principles. And while it is one thing to compromise on, say, which tax breaks are fair game for deficit reduction, it is another to shed principle on issues with a moral cast like abortion.
Some argue that Romney lost not because he was too extreme, as Democrats portrayed him, but because he was never at his core a true conservative.
“We wanted someone who would fight for us,” Jenny Beth Martin, a leader of the anti-Washington Tea Party movement, said at a morning-after news conference. “What we got was a weak moderate candidate, handpicked by the Beltway elites and country club establishment wing of the Republican Party. The presidential loss is unequivocally on them.”
A few suggested there really was no problem at all.
Grover Norquist, keeper of an anti-tax pledge signed by most congressional Republicans, suggested that Tuesday actually brought victory to the conservative cause by affirming the GOP’s 2010 takeover of the House and delivering a number of new Republican governors. Yes, he said, it would have been nice to win the White House and take over the Senate. But the conservative tenets of lower taxes and limited government were hardly repudiated.
“Our strength is state by state,” Norquist said, adding that it is there that Republicans would enact the policies — ending teacher tenure, reining in public employee pensions, promoting school choice — that would invigorate the national party from the bottom up.
Not many, though, are as sanguine about losing the White House again or failing to seize the Senate in a year when Democrats defended twice the number of seats as Republicans. Defying the odds, Democrats ended up winning 25 of 33 contests, gaining a seat.
The peril comes down to arithmetic and demographics.
The numbers of young, Asian-American and, especially, Hispanic voters are growing, and they sided overwhelmingly with the Democratic nominee. The ranks of older white voters, the Republican base, are shrinking.
Much of the focus since Election Day has been the repudiation of the GOP by Hispanics. But the party doesn’t have only a Hispanic problem. Women, younger voters and self-described moderates — who were more than half those voting Tuesday — have been put off by the party’s bedrock opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and, in this last campaign, the demonization of Planned Parenthood.
Romney staked out all of those positions as he fought to secure the Republican nomination in the primaries. All hurt him in the fall.
Four years ago, at an election postmortem by Republican governors, much discussion revolved around the very concerns that have surfaced in the days since Obama’s re-election: the party’s unpopular image nationally, its failure to keep up with Democrats’ superior use of technology, the antagonism of increasingly important voter groups.
Very little has changed since.
Maybe losing two straight presidential campaigns will make a difference, said Weaver and others, who suggested the party needn’t change its philosophy so much as its priorities. Maybe it will take another setback or two. Regardless, they are convinced something has to change and eventually — painfully — will.
“At the end of the day, politicians being the most pragmatic of all creatures will ultimately get to where the math takes them,” Weaver said. “It will not be a pretty process. ... There’s going to be some blood on the floor. But they will ultimately get there.”
The question is: How?