The party is in desperate straits. It has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. It consoles itself with a majority in Congress, but even there its ranks are dwindling. On nearly every issue of national significance—from social affairs to fiscal matters to foreign policy—its positions are increasingly out of step with those of the majority of Americans. Riven by factions, it sometimes seems more like a collection of squabbling interest groups than a coherent political entity. People have started muttering that it might become merely a regional concern, or even go the way of the Whigs and die out.
This is the plight of the Republican Party today. “If we’re being honest,” the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, moped earlier this year, “we have not really won a decisive presidential election since 1988.” Polls show that the party’s stance on practically every issue is a loser: same-sex marriage, international affairs, immigration, even taxes and the deficit. But this dismal situation was, a quarter century ago, the plight of the Democrats.
In the late 1980s, Democrats were the party of racial quotas, handgun bans, and welfare rights, viewed as soft on crime, weak on communism, and antagonistic to family values. The party’s lone president since 1964, Jimmy Carter, won post-Watergate with just 50 percent of the vote. “You’d look at polls and see that the American public agreed with the Republican Party on every meaningful voting issue,” Bill Andresen, a House Democratic aide at the time, recently recalled. The Democratic brand was so toxic that many of the party’s politicians shunned its liberal national candidates, particularly the 1984 presidential nominee, Walter Mondale. As William Galston, who was Mondale’s issues director, told me, “It was not possible to build a platform long enough that southern Democrats would appear on it while Mondale was at the podium.”
By 1992, all of that was changing, thanks to the Democratic Leadership Council, a policy group that was founded in 1985 with the goal of reorienting the party around more-centrist ideas. The philosophical realignment it achieved was remarkable. Such shifts, political scientists note, generally come only in the wake of national crises. If today’s Republicans are to change course, they could learn from the DLC.
So how did the DLC do it? The group’s first order of business was to force the party to face facts. Of all the Democrats’ many problems in the late 1980s, the biggest was denial. Party activists professed that their nominees were losing not because they were too liberal but because they weren’t liberal enough. Or they said that the party simply had to do a better job of turning out its base of low-income and minority voters. Or that Democrats’ majorities in Congress and governors’ mansions proved the party was still doing fine. Some insisted that voters were being hoodwinked by the charismatic Ronald Reagan, or were just too racist and backward to embrace the righteousness of Democratic positions.
The bottom line of such defenses—that the party did not need fundamental change—echoes today’s future-of-the-GOP argument. The DLC took on such excuses in the time-honored medium of intellectual insurgencies: in 1989, following Michael Dukakis’s defeat by George H. W. Bush, it issued a manifesto. “The Politics of Evasion,” a 20-page paper by Galston (the former Mondale staffer) and Elaine Kamarck (a political scientist and longtime Democratic operative), demonstrated with devastating rigor the flaws in Democratic thinking. Countering the turnout argument, the report cited research showing that Dukakis would have lost even if blacks and the poor had voted at rates far exceeding everyone else. The party’s problem wasn’t electoral mechanics or voter apathy—it was the disdain of mainstream Americans. “Too many,” the authors wrote, “see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security.”
Liberals didn’t take the DLC’s efforts lying down. Union members picketed a DLC convention; activists organized an anti-DLC conference in Washington under the slogan “Because one Republican Party is more than enough”; Jesse Jackson dubbed the group “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” The DLC had initially pursued a “big tent” strategy aimed at winning over Democrats from across the political spectrum. But as Kenneth S. Baer recounts in his book on the council, Reinventing Democrats, the group found itself not standing for anything in particular. The DLC eventually embraced a more confrontational strategy, denouncing the party’s ways at meetings across the country. The process was ugly, the sort of spectacle parties generally go to great lengths to avoid. But these New Democrats, as they called themselves, were serious about change. “Our goal was not to unify the party but to expand it,” Al From, the founder of the DLC (which closed down in 2011), told me recently.
Along the way, the DLC tried and discarded other strategies. One was working within the Democratic National Committee. “National committees are consumed by fund-raising, campaigns, and electoral mechanics—they don’t really do doctrine,” Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank founded by the DLC in 1989, said. “We needed an external perch from which to critique and change an organization in decline.” Efforts to focus on the electoral process also failed. In the run-up to the 1988 election, the DLC pushed for a southern “Super Tuesday” primary, which members thought would advantage a moderate Democrat, counteracting the influence of the activist-driven Iowa and New Hampshire contests. But the move backfired when it ended up instead elevating the DLC’s nemesis, the archliberal Jackson.
The DLC didn’t have party activists on its side, but it was convinced it could win support among the party rank and file. And it had buy-in from elected officials like Virginia Governor Chuck Robb, Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, and a long roster of southern Democratic members of Congress. It had new ideas, such as welfare reform and a national service program. Perhaps most crucial, it had a formidable candidate in Bill Clinton, the obscure Arkansas governor who agreed to become the DLC’s chairman after meeting with From in Little Rock in 1989. In return, the DLC helped launch Clinton’s 1992 campaign operation.
If this is the formula for a turnaround, how are Republicans doing? On the crucial first step of facing reality, there have been signs of progress. Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, two former officials in the George W. Bush administration, recently wrote in Commentary that the middle and working classes “regard the Republican Party as beholden to ‘millionaires and billionaires’ and as wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans,” while Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, warned in a speech, “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker.” Even the Republican National Committee got in the game in March, releasing a 97-page “autopsy” of the 2012 election that urged Republicans to respond to voters who see the GOP as “scary,” “narrow minded,” and dominated by “stuffy old men.”
But if the DLC’s example is the yardstick, Republicans have some catching up to do. The recommendations of the party’s autopsy were largely procedural, from emphasizing technology to fiddling with primary and debate calendars. Moreover, the autopsy—the most prominent reform push to date—came from within the party, whereas the DLC had to work outside its party to succeed. Most important, today’s GOP isn’t seeing anything like the bloody, open confrontation that Democratic reformers had with their party’s ideological base. (As Jonathan Chait recounts, one of the few conservative intellectuals to mount a full-bore critique of the GOP has been ostracized for his trouble.) Republican elected officials have shown little will to antagonize conservative activists and the talk-radio crowd. Instead, many insist that the party’s not broken, as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida did at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “We don’t need a new idea,” Rubio said. “The idea is called America, and it still works.”
Watching the GOP’s struggles, former DLCers say they recognize all the old symptoms—the alibis, the search for a procedural panacea, the party committee dominated by diehards. But on the question of whether the Republican Party has just been through its version of 1988, they’re not so sure. As Will Marshall put it: “They know they have a political problem—that’s obvious. But I don’t think they’ve come to grips with the fundamental issue, which is their governing philosophy. I think they’re going to have to lose one more.”