After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican National Committee published an “autopsy.” “When it comes to social issues,” the autopsy declared, “the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people.” The autopsy also added that, “we need to go to communities where Republicans do not normally go to listen and make our case. We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too.”
The last two weeks, more than any since Romney’s defeat, illustrate how miserably the GOP has failed.
Start with June 17, when Dylann Roof, a young white man enamored of the Confederate flag, murdered nine African Americans in church. Within three days, Romney had called for the Confederate flag’s removal from South Carolina’s capitol. Four days later, the state’s Republican governor and senators called for its removal too. But during that entire week—even as it became obvious that the politics of the flag were shifting—not a single GOP presidential candidate forthrightly called for it to be taken down. Instead, they mostly called it a state decision, a transparent dodge politicians deploy when they don’t want to make a difficult call.
Once South Carolina Republicans came out against the flag, the GOP presidential candidates largely followed suit. But by playing it safe, they forfeited their chance to “demonstrate” that they “care” about African Americans at a moment of deep racial trauma. The presidential campaign has been underway for months now. Yet with the exception of Rand Paul, who has talked bluntly about racism in the criminal-justice system, not a single GOP presidential candidate has done anything bold enough to change the political calculus of a community that consistently votes 90 percent Democratic.
Then, on June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was a constitutional right. If the politics of the Confederate Flag shifted radically over the course of a few days, the politics of gay marriage have been shifting radically over the last few years. Young people, including young Republicans, overwhelmingly back marriage equality. Key conservative writers years ago conceded the fight was lost. Yet not a single major GOP candidate risked alienating the Christian right by endorsing the idea. Instead, they sullenly acquiesced, thus forfeiting another opportunity to redefine their relationship with a group of Americans whose support Republicans desperately need.
But those aren’t the only moments in which the GOP presidential field failed. On June 16, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. In recent years, Trump has obsessively questioned whether President Obama was born in the United States and suggested he only gained admission to Columbia and Harvard because he’s black. In his presidential announcement speech, Trump declared that, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. ... They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
For Trump’s GOP opponents, his comments created a perfect “Sister Souljah” moment, an opportunity to confront the offensive comments of someone on your own ideological side and thus win the respect of those they offend. No one took it. The Republican National Committee called Trump a “high-caliber candidate.” Rand Paul’s spokesperson quipped, “the more the merrier.” Mike Huckabee said, “I personally like him.” Ted Cruz praised Trump’s “experience as a successful businessman and job creator.” Jeb Bush called Trump merely a “rich guy.”
In its autopsy, the RNC called on Republicans to embrace comprehensive immigration reform in an effort to win more Latino votes. More than two years later, not only does every major GOP candidate except Jeb Bush oppose it, but none will even condemn a fellow candidate who slurs Mexican immigrants in the crudest of ways.
The rise of Millennials—who are more ethnically and racially diverse and more secular than any generation in American history—is making America a far more culturally tolerant nation than it was when Ronald Reagan, or even George W. Bush, occupied the White House. For the Republican presidential candidates, that means they’re starting from behind. They begin the 2016 race burdened by their party’s reputation for intolerance, a reputation that becomes more politically costly every year as the result of generational change.
In such an environment, Republicans do not have the luxury of caution. They can’t afford to run like Mitt Romney, whose pandering to the GOP base during the primaries doomed him with younger and minority voters in the general election. One lesson of Bill Clinton’s election in 1992—an election in which Clinton endorsed welfare reform, attacked George H.W. Bush from the right on foreign policy, flew back to Arkansas from the campaign trail to execute a mentally retarded murderer and picked a fight with an African-American rapper who mused about killing white people—is that when your party’s base is out of touch with most of the country, you must publicly challenge that base or else be lumped together with it.
Yet the Republican candidates are running like this is their election to lose. It’s not. The economy is improving. Obamacare is growing more popular. Middle class Americans are angrier at the rich than the poor. And culturally, the country is racing left. Winning presidential candidates are smart enough to sense the country’s mood at a given moment in time and bold enough to channel it, even when that entails risk. The last two weeks offered GOP candidates a crucial opportunity to do that. And they blew it, every one.