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Mark Shields: Republicans Mired in Predictable Stages of Defeat

The GOP should have seen it coming, but now ascendant Democrats have passed them by

In the 1988 presidential election, when Republican Vice President George Bush defeated his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, voters younger than age 30 were his strongest voting cohort in the electorate. Bush that year was the beneficiary of President Ronald Reagan’s eight years, during which Reagan appealed to and enlisted the nation’s youngest voters into the Republican Party.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Now listen as Pew Research’s respected Andrew Kohut compares those results from 20 years ago to those of November 2008.

In the three most recent elections, according to Kohut, young voters have trended more Democratic “than they had in the comparable earlier election.” That is, voters ages 18 to 30 voted more Democratic in 2004 than they had in 2002, more Democratic in 2006 than in 2004, more Democratic in 2008 than in 2006.

If Reagan succeeded, and he did, in making young voters the most reliably Republican age group at the polls, then President George W. Bush drove young voters in record numbers into the Democratic Party, where President Obama welcomed and registered them.

When any political party, especially one like the Republicans, who had come to see themselves, and to be seen by some Democrats, as the nation’s natural majority party, loses as decisively as the GOP has in the two most recent national elections, that losing party almost invariably divides into two warring camps that, for lack of imagination, we shall call the Shirts and the Skins.

The Skins argue that their party lost because they had strayed from the party’s core positions and values. All that is needed to return to victory is to return to the traditional, rock-solid convictions and positions the party had so strongly stood for in its glory days. (For losing Republican Skins, that translates to conservative. For losing Democratic Skins, that meant liberal.)

The Shirts take the opposite approach, arguing that the party lost because it had failed to change and adjust to changing times. The party didn’t reach out to disaffected members of the opposition or to independents and had become too narrow. Unless and until the party makes major modifications, insist the Shirts, we are doomed to the minority.

You can see this soap opera being played out among Republicans, who are feuding publicly, with Skins maintaining that the party would be stronger and healthier without Colin Powell and the McCains, father and daughter. The Shirts respond that the GOP cannot and will not be a national party unless it is able to field candidates who can win Senate elections in Pennsylvania and New England, let alone Wisconsin and Arkansas.

In my experience, the first reaction of a party that loses a presidential campaign is the easiest and the dumbest: Blame Your Own Candidate.

Recall the Democrats’ lament after 2000 and 2004 losses. It was all Al Gore’s fault — he was too wooden, not natural, not likable enough. Then the 2004 disappointment was blamed all on John Kerry — he was not personable enough or tough enough or approachable enough or something else. Just as Republicans had explained the party’s 1992 and 1996 defeats on the party’s two standard-bearers: the elder Bush and Bob Dole.

The second reaction of losing party members is even more removed from reality and more self-defeating: the irresistible temptation to Blame the Customer.

It’s all the voters’ fault. When we were winning elections, the voters were perceptive, informed, patriotic and brave. Now that we’re losing elections, those same voters are shallow, craven, self-centered and maybe even more than slightly racist. The problem with this reasoning is that in the United States we have only two major political parties. If you make a habit of branding a majority of the voters as ethical eunuchs and intellectual lightweights, you’re probably not going to win their support on any regular basis.

The third stage of defeat follows: Find the Gimmick.

There has to be some trick or tactic or gimmick that the winning side is using, and just as soon as we master it we’ll be back in the winner’s circle. Losing Republicans explained Franklin Roosevelt’s four victories as FDR “was good on radio.” All the GOP needed was to find somebody just as convincing behind the microphone.

Too many Democrats attributed Reagan’s two landslides to his brilliant mastery of television, as though the answer to all the Democrats’ woes was to nominate Regis Philbin or somebody from American Idol. Obama’s win? He organized his campaign and the nation on the Internet, argue some Republicans, as though if the Republicans could just hire the next, hottest Webmaster in 2011, they’ll be going to an inaugural in 2013.

Finally, after the losing party has admitted that perhaps it lost because voters did not find them or their officeholders to be competent, engaged, relevant or interested in their — the voters’ — lives, the party will come to the final stage of defeat, which is Get Me a Winner. That’s how the Republicans found Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and the Democrats settled on Bill Clinton in 1992 — by overlooking ideological lapses or lack of party regularity and determining that winning is better than losing.

As of today, the Republicans are stuck somewhere between stages one and two. It’s a long predictable way back, but others have successfully, if painfully, made the trip.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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