By Jeff Greenfield
Somewhere—in a governor’s mansion, in the solitude of a congressional office, on the inaugural platform itself, or in a private home—the next Republican nominee for president listened to Barack Obama’s second inaugural address. What was she or he thinking? Possibly something like this:
Game on. What Obama is telling my party is clear: The election proved there are more of “us” than there are of “you,” and I’m embracing the liberal agenda of my party without apology.
But I gotta give the guy credit: Defining that agenda as the fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence was audacious. It was an obvious echo of what Martin Luther King, Jr. did almost half a century ago at the Lincoln Memorial. Back then King said America could not be true to the promise of the Declaration that “all men are created equal” without letting black Americans vote. Now Obama says those words included women, gays, immigrants and young people’s futures—and that they meant his ideas about gay marriage, immigration reform and the economy. How many of his cheerleaders in the press bothered to note that he left out pesky details like the millions of immigrants who broke the law when they came here, or that less than a year ago, he was refusing to embrace gay marriage?
Well, heck, if you’re in my party, that’s just the way the playing field is. And we’ve got a bigger problem. All of us Republicans got November’s message: The American electorate, at least the presidential electorate, has changed, and changed permanently. It’s blacker, browner, younger, better educated than it was even a decade or so ago. (Go back further, and the shift is more dramatic. If Reagan had run against Carter with this electorate, and gotten the same share of the black, Hispanic and white vote as he did in 1980, the election would have ended up in a virtual dead heat.)
But here’s the maddening part: The road to the nomination leads through Iowa, South Carolina and other places where the ideas that win cheers from the caucus and primary-goers are certain to drive away the parts of the electorate that are growing. More than half of Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers call themselves evangelicals; the same is true in South Carolina. I know damn well what would happen—no theology intended—if I tried to argue for a middle ground on abortion. (That poll that just came out showing a shift toward a more “pro-choice” attitude about abortion? For my party’s base, that just proves even more that we’re on the road to perdition.)
And the Hispanic vote? It looks as if we’ve gotten the message, at least up on Capitol Hill: Give the ball to Marco Rubio and let him cut a deal with the Democrats. But that’s still going to leave plenty of room for a candidate to roll through Iowa (and Arizona, and much of the South) with applause lines that thrill the true believers. You think by now we’d know that everyone hears those lines, including those who find them offensive, not just the party faithful. (As not-President Mitt Romney learned, if you’ve spent six months talking about folks “self-deporting,” you don’t win them over by saying, “Se habla español” in October.)
So. Where do I look for a way out of this mess if I’m going to run for the nomination in a way that doesn’t doom my chances to actually win the presidency?
I’m going to spend the next six months looking at what another candidate did when he found himself in much the same situation: William Jefferson Clinton.
After 1988, Clinton saw the political devastation: The Democratic Party had lost three consecutive presidential elections by electoral landslides. What he understood was that to win the White House, a Democrat had to confront his party with some hard truths. So he did.
In his speeches, Clinton said bluntly that the American people no longer trusted Democrats with their money or their safety—a recognition that the crime issue had cleaved millions of working-class Democrats from their party. He told them the blue-collar jobs that had elevated them into relative prosperity were gone and were not coming back. He broke with his party’s base on specific issues ranging from the death penalty to free trade. And he labeled himself “a Different Kind of Democrat.”
Clinton then became the first two-term Democrat since FDR and, in the middle of a sex scandal, became the first president to see his party gain seats in the House in the sixth year of his tenure. (If it weren’t for the 22nd Amendment, he might still be president.)
What does that mean for me? I think the only way for a Republican to win now is to do what Clinton did (and, for that matter, what Tony Blair did with the British Labor Party back in the ’90s, what Mitch Daniels might have done had he run in 2012, and what Jon Huntsman should have done). I’m going to have to tell my fellow Republicans that too many voters trust us neither with their personal freedom nor with their economic interests. I’m going to have to explain our conservative beliefs in ways that go beyond one-liners. Walter Russell Mead’s argument that “the blue-state” model has failed would be a good place to start. (The struggles of California Gov. Jerry Brown, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with the excesses of health and pension costs for pubic employees would give this argument bipartisan heft.)
And maybe I need to find a “Sistah Souljah” moment of my own; Clinton’s rejection of the anti-white sentiments of a rap singer proved highly politically effective. Rush or Sean ought to offer up a host of opportunities
Now—where did I put that saxophone I used to play in high school?