How Did the GOP Turn Into Such a Bunch of Clowns?

(AP Photo/Joe Marquette)

For a lot of reasons, the current era will probably be seen as unusually consequential in the history of the two parties, particularly the GOP. For Republicans, it has been a time of ideological hardening and bitter infighting. But one aspect of the Republican dilemma hasn't gotten as much attention as those: This is a time of unusual, even stunning, Republican political incompetence.

Let me back up for a moment, to put what I'm saying in context. As the 2012 election approached, liberals began to understand just how deluded many conservatives were about empirical reality, and in ways that could do them serious political damage. It's one thing to deny climate change (a denial that may benefit you and your allies), but if you convince yourself that you're going to win when you're actually going to lose, you're hurting no one but yourself. When they began to rally around a guy claiming to "unskew" the 2012 presidential polls that showed Barack Obama heading for a victory, liberals had a great time ridiculing them. But then it turned out that even within the Romney campaign—including the candidate himself—people who were supposedly hard-nosed political professionals had convinced themselves that it was just impossible they could lose, whatever the polls said. As seen in an unforgettable bit of election-night television, Karl Rove, the party's most celebrated strategist, refused to believe that Romney had lost even when Fox News called the race for Obama.

Once the race was over, there was some soul-searching within the GOP about their loss, but most of it concerned the party's image as a bunch of unfeeling, out-of-touch white guys who couldn't appeal to young voters and Hispanics. (Needless to say, this is a problem they've yet to solve,) There was some discussion about the conservative information bubble and the distorting effects it can have, but nothing changed—lots of conservatives still get their news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh, and assume that everything in the New York Times is a lie.

There seems to be little question that the alternative media universe they built, which was once a strength for the right, has become a liability. But their biggest problem now isn't the things so many conservatives believe about the world that aren't true, or what they think will happen that won't. It's about the strategic decisions they make, and where those decisions come from. Think about it this way: Has there been a single instance in the last few years when you said, "Wow, the Republicans really played that one brilliantly"?

In fact, before you'll find evidence of the ruthless Republican skillfulness so many of us had come to accept as the norm in a previous era, you'll need to go back an entire decade to the 2004 election. George W. Bush's second term was a disaster, Republicans lost both houses of Congress in 2006, they lost the White House in 2008, they decided to oppose health-care reform with everything they had and lost, they lost the 2012 election—and around it all they worked as hard as they could to alienate the fastest growing minority group in the country and make themselves seem utterly unfit to govern.

In fact, in the last ten years they've only had one major victory, the 2010 midterm election. But that didn't happen because of some brilliant GOP strategy, it was a confluence of circumstance; the natural tendency for the president's party to lose significant numbers of seats two years after he's elected, and the stagnant economy would have meant a big GOP victory no matter what they did.

Since then they've lurched from one strategic screw-up to the next, the root of which is almost always the same: It happens because they're deluded into thinking that the country shares their particular collection of peeves and biases.

In fairness, this is a challenge for both parties and, indeed, for everyone involved in politics. When politics is your life, it's hard, if not impossible, to think like an ordinary, inattentive voter thinks. When you've spent so much time convincing yourself that you're right; the idea that anyone else who's even remotely fair-minded wouldn't agree can seem nothing short of absurd. It can be hard to persuade people when you can't put yourself in their shoes.

But again and again, Republicans seem shocked to find out that Americans aren't on the same page with them. They're flummoxed when the public doesn't rise up in outrage to demand more answers on Benghazi. They're befuddled when shutting down the government turns into a political disaster. They're gobsmacked when the electorate doesn't reject Barack Obama for saying "you didn't build that," and even more amazed when he gets reelected. And in between, they can't come up with any strategy to accomplish their goals, whether in policy or elections. Again and again, they think the American public is going to see things their way, and when the public doesn't, they never seem to learn anything from it.

It isn't always pure bumbling; there are times when the GOP follows an unwise strategic path not because of miscalculation, but because of unavoidable internal dynamics within the party. For instance, they've failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform not because party leaders don't understand the political necessity of doing so, but because most members of the House come from conservative districts where comprehensive reform is unpopular, and therefore it makes sense for them to oppose it.

It would be too simple to put the GOP's recent string of missteps and disasters down only to the struggle within the party, which yields a course ultimately determined by its radical wing. It is important that Tea Partiers, while being very good at figuring out how to make life miserable for the rest of their party, are abysmal when it comes to devising strategies for appealing to the country as a whole. But it's equally relevant that the supposedly more pragmatic and experienced conservatives haven't found a way to handle the snarling beast on their right flank and turn the whole ghastly mess into something that can fight Democrats with any modicum of success.

This shows no sign of changing. They're going to win seats this November, but once again it won't be because they came up with some brilliant strategy. If they win the Senate it will be because Democrats are defending more seats this year, many of which are in conservative states. (Two years from now when that situation is reversed, Democrats will almost certainly take back the Senate if they lose it this year.) Republicans will probably gain a few seats in the House, but don't forget that in 2012, they retained their sizeable majority despite getting fewer votes nationwide than Democrats: Their advantage there is baked into the distribution of congressional districts.  

And look at the people lining up to run for the White House in 2016. Does any one of them seem like the kind of brilliant politician who can navigate the deadly obstacle course of a two-year long presidential campaign and win over a majority of American voters, including millions who aren't already on board with his party's agenda? Who might that be? Ted Cruz? Rand Paul? Bobby Jindal? Rick Perry? Facing that collection of political samurai, Hillary Clinton must be positively terrified.

There are still plenty of smart Republicans out there. But the days when Republicans would run circles around Democrats, outdoing them in fundraising, messaging, organizing, and every other aspect of campaigning and politics, are a fading memory. The 2010 election may have blinded us to how long it's really been since they set out to achieve a political goal and made it happen through their acumen and judgment. I'm sure that one day the GOP will get its strategic mojo back. But it could be a while.

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