In the days since the election, Republicans have received (and given one another) a lot of advice: Step up the ground game. Soften on immigration and abortion. Embrace same-sex marriage. Appeal more to single women, Hispanics, and young people. Run the younger, more charismatic candidates Republicans have waiting in the wings. Some of this advice is good, and some of it bad. But the weakness of the Republican party predates the emergence of same-sex marriage as an issue, the development of Democratic micro-targeting strategies, and the growth of the Hispanic vote. And wasn’t Josh Mandel, the losing Ohio Senate candidate, supposed to be one of those great young conservative hopes? However much charisma and brains the next crop of Republicans brings to their campaigns, they need a stronger party.
The perception that the Republican party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms. Hispanics do not vote for the Democrats solely because of immigration. Many of them are poor and lack health insurance, and they hear nothing from the Republicans but a lot from the Democrats about bettering their situation. Young people, too, are economically insecure, especially these days. If Republicans found a way to apply conservative principles in ways that offered tangible benefits to most voters and then talked about this agenda in those terms, they would improve their standing among all of these groups while also increasing their appeal to white working-class voters. For that matter, higher-income voters would prefer candidates who seem practical and solution-oriented. Better “communications skills,” that perennial item on the wish list of losing parties, will achieve little if the party does not have an appealing agenda to communicate.
Despair has led many Republicans to question their earlier confidence that America is a “center-right country.” It is certainly a country that has strong conservative impulses: skepticism of government, respect for religion, concern for the family. What the country does not have is a center-right party that explains how to act on these impulses to improve the national condition. Until it does, it won’t have a center-right political majority either.