A Party Still in Denial?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 15, 2013 · 9:30 AM EDT

When a former GOP governor asked me the other day whether he would see another Republican elected to the White House in his lifetime, I asked him exactly how old he was.

Of course, I said, eventually there would be another Republican in the White House. It might even come soon. A Democratic president will screw up (think Benghazi, the IRS and higher taxes from the health care overhaul), and a Republican will be elected simply because voters want change. But I understood the question’s premise, as well as the larger point he was making.

More than a few Republicans seem worried that their party didn’t draw the right message from 2012.

Recent talk about the possibility of a 2016 White House bid by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was described by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint as “one of the strongest Republicans in the country right now,” probably has many GOP strategists looking for a bomb shelter in which to jump.

“I’ve been in 25 cities in the last few months, all I have to do is mention Ted Cruz’s name and they stand up and cheer. They’re hungry for someone who is not afraid, willing to stand up and trying to change the status quo,” DeMint, who now runs The Heritage Foundation, said before a major political dinner in the Palmetto State recently.

I hear silliness like that all the time from politicians on both sides of the aisle.

DeMint can’t possibly believe that the kind of people who are attending a state party fundraising dinner or showing up at Heritage Foundation events around the country are a random sample of public opinion, a coincidental cross section of the American electorate, can he?

Obviously, most people who go to see DeMint agree with him and want more Jim DeMints elected to high office. No wonder they cheer and praise Cruz.

And what could DeMint have possibly meant by saying the Texan was among the “strongest Republicans in the country”? Cruz may be strong like garlic, but not strong like Ronald Reagan, a politician with broad electoral appeal.

While there are plenty of Cruz admirers around the country, that constituency is a distinct minority nationally.

Cruz is smart (he attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist), and he has strong appeal to Republicans who see every battle in ideological terms, as a fight of good versus evil.

But that isn’t most Americans. And it certainly isn’t most swing voters.

As I wrote in July after talking with Cruz twice during his Senate campaign, “He seemed certain that he was right about everything and apparently believed it’s unnecessary for a politician to connect with voters in any way other than on a checklist of issue positions.”

DeMint and others of his ideological stripe continue to believe that the GOP needs to present a more ideological, less compromising candidate, and that essentially means doubling down on the party’s message over the past few years — the same message that has cost Republicans presidential races and Senate seats. (Redistricting after the 2010 census has protected Republican control of the House.)

A large chunk of the GOP likes that message and believes it’s only a matter of time before opponents “see the light.” But at some point, even Republicans who embrace the message ought to wonder if it’s really a winning one. (Of course, some Republicans, DeMint among them, would rather be right than be in the majority.)

The question now is whether the Republican Party can take its generally conservative message and make it more broadly appealing, including to younger people, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, or whether the party needs to experience a true political blood bath before even the most conservative elements agree that a new message and new style are called for.

Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party was the governing party going into the 1993 elections, holding 156 seats in Parliament. The party suffered a humiliating defeat in that election, winning just two seats. It took a revamped Conservative Party 13 years to form another government, but the 1993 blood-letting left no doubt that the party had to change.

As the Republican National Committee’s March 2013 report on the state of the party demonstrated, most veteran national GOP strategists seem to understand where the party is headed and how it needs to change.

But it’s far from clear that the primary voters and grass-roots activists understand that, and successful 2014 midterm elections — which are certainly possible given the differences in presidential and off-year turnout and given the Obama administration’s current problems — could help too many Republicans forget the important lessons of 2012.

The 2016 GOP nominating process will tell us a lot about whether Republicans really understand what is happening or the party needs to experience an electoral bloodbath to get the message.