Covers, The Future of Conservatism — April 4, 2013 9:05 pm

How the GOP Lost Me


romney hpr

I’ve been as Republican as a Republican can be. I grew up a Republican. I’ve voted for Republican candidates, interned for a Republican Congressman, and worked for a Republican presidential campaign. But I no longer count myself as a member of the GOP, and it’s not because I’m afraid of what people at Harvard think. I am no longer a Republican because the Grand Old Party no longer accepts people of my ideology. I have been disowned. Before explaining how that came to be and why the GOP should be worried about it, a bit about who I am:

I was raised in Waco, Texas by hard working conservative parents. They owned a small used bookstore that barely kept us afloat. My siblings and I spent our afternoons there, helping with anything we could. All through childhood, I was instilled with the Republican ideals: those oft-invoked middle class values of hard work, freedom, and morality.

As a child, politics didn’t seem like the back-and-forth I see it as today. Back then, politics was a constant battle against my family and my identity. I understood what it was like to “want” but never to “have.” I had learned the value of sweat. The Republicans offered tax cuts and business friendliness. The Democrats wanted more taxes and regulation. The Republicans were people like my father, regular guys who believed in the American Dream. The Democrats were Harvard elites who had never worked a day in their lives. To my young eyes, the distinction between the good guys and bad guys was simple.

As I’ve grown older, that line has blurred significantly. Gross oversimplification of the parties is unproductive. The issues are more subtle than I originally assumed. I became much more moderate as time went on because I studied the issues more closely. And luckily I was given a chance to revise my ideas of Harvard students first hand.

The complexity of the issues became much more obvious when I interned in Washington for a Republican Congressman from Texas. I got to see the nitty gritty of politics and policy creation. I credit that experience for making me a pragmatic person. I saw the detailed political calculation behind what at first seemed like ideological decisions. It made me less interested in politics and more interested in the process that leads to the legislative deals. I started to identify less and less with politicians that refused to compromise.

Then I looked into a politician that was getting headlines: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. In “the Gov,” as the young volunteers would call him, I saw a Republican who had done good things in a heavily Democratic state. He had no problem reaching across the aisle and compromising in order to get effective legislation passed. I hadn’t seen that in President Obama. Unlike Newt Gingrich and other politicians further to the right, I’d loved that Governor Romney was a “Massachusetts Moderate.” On most issues, Romney and Obama’s policies didn’t actually differ that much. What put me squarely in the Romney camp was my belief that Romney could get pragmatic legislation, like a sorely needed jobs bill, passed where Obama could not due to opposition in Congress. So after my internship in DC finished, I went to work for the Romney Campaign in the Boston headquarters.

My time at the campaign, while an amazing experience, was also a time of great disillusionment with the Republican Party. A discussion of how the campaign was run deserves complete study, so I will save that for another time. Most importantly, what I learned about the GOP while there was the extensive messaging problem the party has. Extreme positions became the only accepted messages. The Gov began to shift from “Massachusetts Moderate” to “Staunch Conservative.” This seemed like the influence of the GOP, rather than the Romney I had admired.

The Republican Party once accepted all different forms of conservatives. It embraced both the Rockefeller Republicans and the Goldwater Republicans. In the recent years, the Tea Party has taken over the central messaging of the party and has forced out the more moderate factions. Moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe are reviled as traitors while the Santorums and Bachmanns of the world are seen as Republican standard bearers.

The party has also become more detached from the middle class, a change that has personally affected me. This one has been a long time coming, as is evidenced by the typical Republican stereotype of the rich fat cat. But for me, it only really hit home with the release of the video of Romney dismissing 47% of the US population. With that, the Republican Party completely lost the middle class and the poor.

Those major problems, extremism and loss of the middle class, are the disease maligning the GOP. This disease has and will continue to cost them political success and popular appeal. There is no outright cure, but the party can fight the causes in order to stay healthy. There are four causes to the disease that would be easy to fight: the GOP’s stances on immigration, women’s issues, gay rights, and the 47%.

The first two, immigration and women’s issues, can be fixed by changing party messaging. On immigration, the GOP is moving toward reformation of the system, but it needs to cut out the acerbic language. Currently the language of the GOP is harsh towards immigrants and the children of illegal aliens. By turning the tables and adjusting the message to be about the positives of immigration and support of the illegal children, the GOP will gain much more of the Hispanic population’s vote, which historically can swing to either party, and certainly will in the future.

Women’s issues are another messaging problem: the most extreme views are the loudest. Comments on rape and abortion by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock are not the norm of the Republican party that I grew up with, but they do show a trend within the Republican Party of being on the wrong side of women’s issues. The public views the Republicans as siding with rapists instead of rape victims, as having no sympathy for women seeking an abortion, and as being hostile towards the use of contraception. But most Republicans do not support rapists, most feel sympathy toward women who believe they need an abortion, and most do not want to target contraception. This is a messaging problem, because (once again) the extremists have defined the Republican narrative. Change that narrative, and start being for women instead of against them.

Gay rights is more than a messaging problem for the GOP. This is an issue that the party needs to adjust its views on, or else stay on the wrong side of history in this civil rights battle. The millennials overwhelmingly support gay marriage, and the next generation of voters will follow the same trend that every generation since the Silent Generation in the 1930s has shown and support it even more. If the GOP doesn’t get on the right side of this issue it will lose a huge number of supporters, and more importantly they will completely lose the moral high ground. It would be destructive for the morality of the party and the country if, decades from now, Republicans have to look back at these pivotal years in the gay rights movement and feel ashamed at the incomprehensible actions of their fathers, as generations of kids felt after the segregation years.

By following those three paths, the GOP can pick up a big chunk of votes from the Hispanic population, women, and millennial voters. But it can do even better, and probably set itself up for a pretty long White House stay, if it finds the middle class again. I originally thought this was just a messaging problem that a minority of the party had caused – a few guys who wanted big donations would help out their rich friends. Tax breaks for millionaires weren’t helping my family, but I doubted the Republicans had forgotten us.

Then, my moderate hero, the only man I have ever campaigned for, the Gov, dismissed 47% of the country. He dismissed people like me. As a member of the campaign, I initially tried to defend the comment to my friends, but doing that only made me more disgusted. If the man I believed was going to be the harbinger of moderation in the Republican party could so flippantly admit he didn’t care about almost 150 million Americans just like me, how could I have any hope for the Republican Party? They didn’t lose me, they rejected me. Because of the changes in the GOP, I was forced to change party affiliation, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The Republican Party will have to change if they want to be the party of the middle class. The GOP needs a paradigm shift when it comes to the middle class: stop helping millionaires and help the Average Joe again. Show normal Americans you’re on their side by supporting things like reformation of the tax code to make the rich pay their fair share, and help lift some of the burden off the middle class. By proving they care more about regular families than rich donors, the Republicans can regain some of the middle class support they’re losing.

Although I do not plan to rejoin the Republican Party, I do not believe the party is damned. The GOP needs to realize that it can’t keep losing supporters and stay competitive. Right now the GOP is losing the middle class, Hispanics, women, and millennials like water through a sieve, and for good reason. By changing their messaging, they can stymie the flow and decrease the influence of extremism on the party. By changing their mindset on gay rights and on the half of all Americans that are underprivileged, the Republicans can gain the youth vote and reclaim the middle class. Conservatism and the party still have a chance to be relevant, but if they ignore their problems they will not, and should not, be leading the nation again in the foreseeable future.


  • Aaron

    I wish the author would look at the updated positions of key GOP figures. Even within just the last 2 or 3 weeks much of what the author has talked about has actually begun to occur. Immigration, gay rights and general party moderation are in full swing.

  • Blake

    Excellent article! Better than the ones I’ve been reading, because you provide a lot of insight. Not only as someone who has actively been a part of the party, but also as someone from a hardworking, underprivileged family. Simply put when you said “the extremists have defined the Republican narrative”.

  • Brian St Cyr

    Aaron within the the past week the GOP called latinos “wetbacks” and compared homosexuals to people that engage in beastiality. And conservatives are baffled on why liberals constantly call them racist. The conservative movement has turned into a clown show. The headlines are so outlandish at this point theyre like satire from the onion. I wonder what appalling thing is going to come out next week.

  • SgtSOB

    I was once a faithful GOP supporter from 1994 to roughly 2006 so I know the feeling. During that time I consumed nothing but conservative media which did nothing to challenge me or my opinions. Once I started seeking out opposing opinions it forced me to think for myself rather than listening to some talking head tell me what I should think.

    Anyways, I thought your article was great and spot on.

  • SgtSOB

    I was once a faithful GOP supporter from 1994 to roughly 2006 so I know the feeling. During that time I consumed nothing but conservative media which did nothing to challenge me or my opinions. Once I started seeking out opposing opinions it forced me to think for myself rather than listening to some talking head tell me what I should think.

    Anyways, I thought your article was great and spot on.

  • Gunner Miller

    No. The GOP did not say that, some of the loudest extreme view holding individuals said that. There is a difference. I will say your comment on the ‘clown show” is right on the money. I think when even Bill O’Reilly starts to be vocal against the ‘bible thumpers’ on gay rights, they have to start changing or become the modern Whig party.

  • Sean Cook

    A good article, but a few points.

    A. Comments about rape were more frequent when you were growing up then now. You just weren’t listening. The GOP now is BETTER, it’s just that better is still bad and society has shifted faster then them. But in absolute terms, they were 100x worse under Reagan.

    B. Their problems with immigrants and women have nothing to do with messaging. Do you think immigrants and women are too stupid to understand GOP policy ideas? Because it’s the policies that are the issue.

  • Sean Cook

    Yes, the voices the GOP has gerrymandered themselves into electing. Those people don’t get into office by magic.

  • Brandon

    It’s just lipservice at best. Huge chunks of your base are against those things.

  • GIS John

    This article has helped me articulate my feelings so well. This describes my feelings and emotions ever since the Romney campaign. Even within my family I feel shunned because of my lack of faith in with the GOP.

  • Salty_Dave

    The GOP is incapable of addressing the issues of a globalized world where American workers must compete with lower wage workers. The GOP wants unrestricted capital movement and the eventual equalization of the wage of labor across the planet, which means the USA will have to equalize its wages downward, which in fact has been happenning. This will not help American society much, but it does guarantee the highest profits for those with capital. As other advanced countries manage their societies’ positions in the global economy in an effort to benefit its peoples (people = demos – as in demo-cracy), the GOP by definition is incapable of doing this based on their ideology that does not allow for the possibility that $ circulating through all sectors of the economy (government, private and non-profit) actually has an overall beneficial effect on the total amount of transactions and activity in the economy, ultimately benefiting the private sector more than if the other sectors were not slandered as a function of a stale and dysfunctional ideology. As such, the GOP cannot and will not address the needs of average Americans. It therefore needs to generate social animosity, lie and cheat and disenfranchise Americans in order to gain power. Frankly, it is nothing but a source of disgust and causes the United States to operate at suboptimal levels. Perhaps it should abandon its appeals to racism and cultural chauvinism and simply disband. Something it should have done in penance for the delay it caused in entering WWII, 2 years after the Canadians and Australians fought against a racialized view of society (which was in fact a popular idea in the USA and continues among many white Republicans). The Canadian Conservative Party actually points to the possibility of a conservative movement that embraces the entirety of the country it operates within and tries to govern in the national interest rather than effectively creating an oligarchy and destroying the possibility of American democracy.

    The author was once a GOP supporter – how pathetic!

  • boba

    Canadian conservatives are a mirror image of republicans. Harper and company are REFORM party members, look it up.

  • Salty_Dave

    What deep insight! While I am not a Harper supporter (clearly) he does agree with Keynesian economic theory to some extent; he will not touch socialized medicine; he will not touch social issues such as gay marriage (already the law in Canada and the law in Quebec and British Columbia for over 25 years now), and/or will stay as far away from the issue of abortion that he can – all of which is a ‘volte-face’ on the Reform Party era. There is a lot more that may in fact draw the conclusion that Harper is closer to the Democratic Party than the GOP, need I go on?

    There was a time when the 2 major Canadian political parties aligned with the GOP and Dems to some extent, but that time is long gone as a result of the GOP drift very far to what Canadians, Australians, British and most Europeans including the highly successful Dutch, the resource rich Norwegians, and the Germans would see as extremism. As a result, they have pulled the entire US political spectrum rightward. If you are not comparing to other countries you may have missed your drift to crazy.

    Also, if you are not comparing to other countries you have missed the reality that the world is more integrated and the USA depends on other countries for its prosperity.

  • Salty_Dave

    What is your definition of “underprivileged”? I would not count the author’s family surviving on a small business as “underprivileged”, perhaps lower middle class, but clearly they had options that many truly “underprivileged” do not, such as the father having a sufficient level of education to find another job if he felt he wasn’t providing enough for his family which is white in Texas. Let’s not forget that Whites have a lower unemployment rate than Blacks and Hispanics – especially in “that South” and therefore have a ‘leg-up’ in the employment game allowing them the safety to support the Republican Party. In Canada and Australia, for example, everyone suffers the same rate of unemployment as there is not an ethnic division of labor that benefits “white” people.

    Yet another reason Republicans are so disgusting and objectionable.

  • Larry McAwful

    You make some good points about what ails the Republican Party today, and how its radical elements are serving to alienate the party’s own moderates, as well as immigrant and young voters who haven’t decided how to align themselves politically yet. The Republican Party indeed does need to get with the trends that the United States—as well as the modern world—are embracing. Its attitudes toward women, gays and immigrants are downright toxic, and the Republican Party needs to figure out how to moderate (even, dare I say, liberalize) on those groups.

    But if the Republican Party is going to turn toward progress and away from extremists, there’s one problem that your article doesn’t address: these extremists are now a major part of the Republican Party. These are people who don’t like gays and immigrants, and don’t want to see equality for women. These are people for whom compromise is a four-letter word. These are people who decry “Moderate Mitt” as someone who’s as much a traitor as Barack Obama, simply because “the Gov” had a habit of reaching across the aisle. His perceived moderation always stuck in the craw of the extremists; they rejected him because of that very trait. So the question is: if the Republican Party moves to embrace the future, what will happen to its extremists? The GOP relies on their votes. What if they just stayed home? How would the GOP deal with that?

    I agree with your take on your party, Lee, I really do. And while I’m not now nor ever have been a conservative, I think we do need a healthy conservative party in this country. We actually have one: it’s called the Democratic Party, which has been moving rightward to benefit from the vacuum left by the gradually rightward-lurching Republicans. What left wing this country used to have has long been abandoned by the Democrats, and it’s working out for them—at least, it is as far as winning elections goes. The question is: will the Republicans have the courage and the strength to mirror the Democrats’ strategy and move leftward? If they do, they will certainly alienate their extremists, and it will be a long, rough struggle back to sane politics. The way I see it, they have to do this, or else face implosion and the political wilderness. What scares me is that they might not moderate, in which case we’ll finally have to say that 160 years has been long enough, and bury the Republican Party. What would follow is anybody’s guess, but the United States would certainly see the emergence of at least one new political party (even if it’s merely the Republican Party, rebranded). The scariest part is how the Republicans will go about handling this next step. More people who think like you would make it easier. Sadly, I don’t think there are that many of you at all.


  • Uncledez Dezzy

    Great article. Instead of articles like this to be posted on Yahoo news they instead post stupid stuff like “Kim Kardeshian is pregnant” as if that’s of any good to me or the general public.

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