Why 2016 is the Year of Republican Reform

Bobby Jindal might say that the GOP needs to stop being the "stupid party," and Eric Cantor might call for a new agenda that helps ordinary Americans, but the fact of the matter is that the Republican Party hasn't changed much since November, when it failed to capture the White House or make gains in Congress. So far, the Republican "reform" project has been an attempt to clothe old policies—income tax cuts, tight monetary policy, large discretionary spending cuts—in new rhetoric.

Insofar that there's been a genuine attempt to rethink the GOP, it has come from the party's intellectual class. Over the last three months, Ramesh Ponnuru, David Frum, Reihan Salam, Michael Gerson, and others have attempted to provide a path out of the wilderness for the Republican Party, one that turns away from old dogmas and attempts to craft a conservatism that's responsive to today's conditions. As Ponnuru put it in a recent piece for the New York Times, today's Republicans "slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones."

Unfortunately, as Ross Douthat notes in a must-read blog post, these intellectual reformers—of which Douthat is a member—have had little to no success reaching actual Republican politicians, as evidenced by the latter's adherence to a tired, unpopular agenda:

[I]t is important for would-be reformers to concede that as of right now, the Republican Party’s rising stars clearly prefer to adopt the rhetoric suggested by conservative policy thinkers without embracing much if any of the substance…[P]oliticians who talk up “libertarian populism” or “opportunity conservatism” or the “Rawlsian lens” and then end by calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment, hard money and a flat tax aren’t actually reforming the Republican Party; they’re just wrapping losing ideas in slightly smarter rhetoric than poor Mitt Romney was ever able to come up with. […]

As he puts later, the "right’s reformers are doing a far, far better job proposing solutions to the G.O.P.’s dilemmas (and the country’s problems) than they are persuading actual Republican politicians to embrace them." That, in short, is the nut of it. So far, Republican politicians have few reasons to embrace reform.

But while reform is good for the country, it's hard to argue that it's necessary to GOP electoral success, at least in the immediate short-term. As Seth Masket pointed out in a recent post for Pacific Standard magazine, there's little evidence that Republicans are paying an electoral price for extremism, even as the move further and further to the right. " If the economy had been experiencing a recession last year instead of modest growth," writes Masket, "Mitt Romney would be president today."

Indeed, not only would Mitt Romney be president, but Republicans would likely have a majority in the Senate and a larger majority in the House. In other words, there would have been no real consequences to the far right rhetoric that has defined the GOP nomination process at all levels of government.

If Republicans politicians seem uninterested in genuine reform, it's because the current period isn't unusual. Eight years is a normal amount of time for a party to be locked out of the White House. And given GOP control of the House of Representatives—as well as Republican dominance at the state level–it's not as if Republicans lack a platform for action. Demographic concerns are real, yes, but those are broad trends—there's nothing about growing nonwhite populations that precludes a GOP victory in 2016. It just makes it more difficult.

If reform happens, it will be because Republicans find themselves out of power for an unusual amount of time. A setback in 2014, a loss in 2016—those are the things that will prompt a reevaluation of the party's policies and priorities. After all, the longer a party stays out of power, the fewer experienced hands it has, the harder it is to govern when power is achieved (see: the Clinton administration, 1993-1995).

To put this another way, it took Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis for Democrats to move away from the 70s liberalism that defined the party. Republican modernizers might have to wait a little longer to achieve a similar feat.