The GOP Problem of Perception

The GOP’s problem is perception; namely, the Republican Party has allowed itself to be cast as a Party without a platform and as one that is anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-gay.

Following any disappointing election result, the losing Party goes through a grueling process of blame, infighting, and eventually renovation. The 2012 election was no different; the infighting among politicians, consultants, and media personalities reached fever pitch.

The blame was distributed among the usual suspects. Red State’s Erick Erickson blamed the loss on Romney, arguing that he was not conservative enough to win. Others, such as former Bush Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez argued that Romney lost because he failed to run as the true moderate that he is. But if the blame really should fall on Romney, then one would assume that other Republican candidates (specifically Senate candidates) would have run ahead of him – but they didn’t, as Ramesh Ponnuru points out. In fact, most of the Republican Senate candidates (Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, North Dakota, etc.) ran significantly behind Mitt Romney, even in races that they won.

Many have blamed the loss on changing demographics (less white, married, church-going people, more minorities, young people, and unmarried women voting), but as Ross Douthat wrote, it’s a political chimera. Blaming changing demographics for the Republican loss is easy, but it fails to address the foundational reasons why the young and minority voting blocs increasingly side with Democrats.

The solution is not to revamp the entire Party platform, but rather to change the tone and tenor of the discussion.

Mitt Romney and the changing demographic realities are not the cause of the GOP’s problems, but rather the reflection of more deep-seated issues. Neither is the conservative ideology problematic. In the most recent Gallup poll by of ideological self-description, 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as conservative, 35 percent moderate, and 21 percent liberal. The GOP’s problem is perception; namely, the Republican Party has allowed itself to be cast as a Party without a platform and as one that is anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-gay.

Many within the Party, however, have demonstrated that this is not what they believe, although more often in private than in public. The GOP is a Party of vision and boldness, but its message has been drowned out by those on the fringe who are portrayed as the standard bearers of conservatism. Former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt put it best when he said, “too many swing voters in the country, when you hear the word conservative now, they think of loons and wackos.”

There are three areas where the Republican Party must at least change its perception, if not its policy.

The Economy

The first is the economy, and more specifically, the way Republican Party relates to the middle class. The GOP was historically the Party of business, and particularly small business. But too often in recent years, it’s become – both in perception and reality – the Party of big business and big banks. Republicans often criticize the Obama administration’s handling of Energy Department loans, for instance, as crony capitalism. But this is the GOP’s version of crony capitalism – protecting big business and big banks at all costs and at the expense of the middle class. In a sense, they’re right to protect these institutions because as difficult a political argument as it is, corporations and banks are necessary for job creation, economic development and capital formation.

But this fact doesn’t resonate with the average voter. As Ramesh Ponuru said in his election post-mortem, “The Republican story about how societies prosper … dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify.” The power of the entrepreneurial spirit is an important argument to make, but it must be part of a broader narrative about free enterprise, social mobility and the American dream.

Immigration

The second area is immigration reform. The Republican Party has always been and should always be pro-immigration. In fact, it was historically liberal organizations – labor unions and environmentalists – that opposed mass-immigration, supporting reforms in the early 20th century that eventually became the National Origins Quota, which barred immigration from Eastern Europe and Asia, referring to allowing immigrants from those areas as “an invasion of venomous reptiles.”

The current Republican Party, like its predecessors, is not anti-immigration or anti-immigrant, but its hardline positions against illegal immigration and amnesty have drowned out the Party infrastructure. Republicans believe in the power of the individual, entrepreneurship, and small business; various studies, including this one by the Small Business Administration, reveal that immigrants are responsible for a significant percentage of new small businesses and are starting ventures at an incredible rate. They believe in the freedom necessary for expansion in a global economy. And yes, while they believe in the rule of law, most of them understand that a path to citizenship for illegal aliens is necessary for bipartisan reform. In short, the Republican Party is pro-immigrant and pro-immigration; we just haven’t done a good enough job explaining it.

Social Issues

The third area is social issues. There are some, myself included, who believe that social issues like abortion and gay marriage should not hold as prominent a place in national politics. That being said, while the conservative positions have been painted as anti-gay and anti-women, I don’t think they’re necessarily losing political issues.

The Republican Party can make the case for traditional values as a subset of the Party platform in a way that doesn’t demonize those who disagree and particularly those who practice the opposite (homosexuals and women who have had abortions, for instance). It’s possible to be pro-traditional marriage without being anti-gay and it’s possible to be pro-life without denigrating women who have gone through the painful process of having an abortion. The greatness of the American experiment lies, in part, in its acceptance of divergent views and, as Christians who believe that we are created in God’s image, our job is not to judge but rather to embrace the pluralism that allows for a vibrant, open debate.

Perception Dictates Reality

Even with these challenges, I have hope for the Republican Party. It is the Party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan. It’s the Party that freed the slaves, that designated national parks and built the national highway system. It’s the Party whose president oversaw the fall of the Soviet Union and the technological boom of the 1980s.

The solution is not to revamp the entire Party platform, but rather to change the tone and tenor of the discussion.

In politics, perception often dictates reality and the perception of the Republican Party is not good. But the future leaders of the Party – the Bobby Jindals, Marco Rubios, and Chris Christies – are attempting to change that. Jindal, the youngest governor in the country and the first Indian-American to serve in high-elected office, was one of the first to condemn Mitt Romney’s recent statement that President Obama won because he gave “gifts” from the government to certain voting blocs. Marco Rubio has called on his Party to stop “demonizing Hispanics” and to work towards solutions to our ineffective immigration system.

 Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is among several rising stars in the Republican Party.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is among several rising stars in the Republican Party.

But this isn’t just about politics. While analyzing the political ramifications of the election and the prospects of the Republican Party going forward, I also have to think about what my role is, as a young Christian working in Washington. The vision of the Republican Party that I’ve been explaining is not just one that’s more politically palatable, but it’s also one that is more in line with principled leadership.

The Republican Party is not the “Christian Party,” nor is the Democratic Party. But as Christians working in politics, our goal should always be to use any influence we have, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, to emphasize moral leadership. I hope for a Republican Party that is pro-immigrant and pro-immigration, that is principled in its stances on social issues but not hateful in its discussion of opponents, and that values social mobility and opportunity for all above the interests of corporations and big banks. That is a Republican Party that is more in line with the biblical teachings to care for orphans and widows, to love those with whom we may disagree, and to generally place the well-being of other as superior to our own.

People often ask me why I work in politics (i.e. how can you stand to work for and be around those liars and thieves). Christians especially ask how I can simply accept a system that rewards the people who raise the most money or who are polarized enough to win a primary; a system of moral equivalency where, as The West Wing’s President Bartlett put it, “we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone’s to blame, so no one’s guilty.”

My answer is this: Proverbs 1:20-21 says “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.” I don’t claim to possess much in the way of wisdom, but I feel that the skills and talents that I have are best used by influencing my Party and my political system for good, by attempting, in whatever way I can, to bring God’s truth and love to a process often devoid of those attributes. As I’ve written before, few in our generation feel the need or have the desire to challenge the public notions of principled leadership, preferring instead the safety of individual endeavors – a wholly rational position. But for those of us working in the political world, our goal should not be to overthrow the existing conceptions, but rather to influence our field for good, to the benefit of others.

As a Republican, I hope the Party takes heed of the political realities that manifested themselves in the last election and change the way they carry themselves. Perception is reality, but it’s also malleable. With leaders like Rubio, Jindal, and Christie, I have hope for the Republican Party. But I also hope that more young Christians, particularly those working in Washington, will take this opportunity to make a positive contribution to both the public discourse and the future of our political system.

-Chris Hartline graduated from Houghton College in 2012 with a degree in history and political science