Calls that Republicans must “move to the center” reach a fever pitch every time the party loses a major election. No doubt the GOP needs to do a better job of appealing to women, younger voters and Hispanics, but it need not shed its principles.
The media trope that the Republican Party is a “Star Wars” bar scene of theocrats and religious zealots by now has become a threadbare cliche. The Huffington Post said after the 2012 elections that the GOP resembles “a rump parliament of Caucasian traditionalism: white, married, churchgoing — to oversimplify only slightly.”
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd claimed the Republicans lost because they “tried to force chastity belts on women and made Hispanics, blacks and gays feel like the help.”
We have seen this movie before. Similar calls for retreating from conservative principles echoed after defeats in 1992, 1996 and 2008. In 1993, the chairman of the Republican Party said after George H.W. Bush lost the presidency that the party should “not cling to zealotry masquerading as principle and the stale ideas of a dead and dying past.” Sixteen months after these comments, Republicans won control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.
One wonders: Is our support for the institution of marriage as a sacred union between a man and a women a stale idea of a dying past? I think not. The Supreme Court’s recent rulings on marriage aside, 70 percent of Americans still live in states where traditional marriage is the law and 33 states have passed referendums codifying it as such. Only 13 states have legalized same-sex marriage, and a number of these were done by judicial fiat, such as Iowa, California (by a federal district court) and Massachusetts.
Our agenda ultimately is not beholden to either political party. We will support the values that made this nation great, regardless. However, if the Republican Party wants to return to majority status in Washington, it is impossible to do so without the support of self-identified evangelical Christians and faithful Roman Catholics.
In 2012, these voters made up fully 36 percent of the entire electorate. This constituency is larger than the union vote, the black vote and the Hispanic vote combined. If the GOP de-emphasizes its commitment to the sanctity of life and marriage and loses these voters, the big tent will become a pup tent.
Besides, in spite of the media’s predictable obituaries, a pro-family Republican Party is institutionally and demographically stronger than it has been in decades. Statistically speaking, the GOP was in far worse shape after previous defeats. After Herbert Hoover’s defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression, Republicans controlled 36 seats in the Senate and 117 in the House. After Richard M. Nixon and Watergate, the party’s brand was even lower than it is now. Even after Mr. Bush’s defeat in 1992 by Bill Clinton — the worst defeat for an incumbent president since Hoover in 1932 — Republicans stood at 43 in the Senate and 176 in the House.
Today, Republicans have 45 members in the Senate, 233 members in the House, plus 30 governorships compared with Democrats’ 20. There is no question that the Republican governors are among the most popular reformist, conservative, forward-looking governors in the country. They are reforming education and public-sector unions, and balancing budgets without raising taxes. The policies we have been told are repudiated and dead, and can’t be sold anymore, are more popular than ever at the state level. This trend extends to the state and local levels: Republicans elected more than 700 state legislators in 2010. They control both houses of 24 legislatures, compared with three for Democrats.
Besides, we have tested this formula of “moving to the middle” to appeal to moderate voters. The laboratory was California. A state that produced Ronald Reagan and other great conservatives moved to the mushy middle. They nominated candidates for statewide office such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meg Whitman, who were pro-choice, pro-homosexual rights and fiscally moderate. Today, it is fair to say that the Republican Party is on the verge of extinction in that state. Only 25 out of 80 in the California Assembly are Republicans, and only 11 of 40 in the state Senate. Yet these are the same policies and the same strategy being recommended as the Republican Party’s only hope at the national level.
As we face America’s changing demographics and growing Hispanic and Asian populations, conservatives must, of course, adapt. However, those who counsel moderation, trimming of sails and moving to the “middle” never succeed in winning minority votes. Conservatism is not anathema to minority voters. The high-water mark in the post-World War II period for a Republican presidential candidate in garnering Hispanic votes was George W. Bush, who won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. In analyzing these voters, he overperformed among self-identified conservatives. Forty percent of Hispanics self-identify as conservatives, 22 percent are evangelical, 25 percent are faithful Catholics, and 2 million of them are small-business owners. That is how you win their votes. George W. Bush won 75 percent of evangelical Hispanics. They are pro-life, pro-marriage and patriotic.
We have much work to do as conservatives. We need to broaden our appeal, build a better ground game, concede not a single constituency to the other side, and formulate public policy that meets the needs of people where they are. But we cannot and should not retreat from the time-honored principles that made America great and are the only hope to restore it to moral and economic greatness.
Ralph Reed is founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.