A Republican Path to the Presidency (and Why Following It Might Benefit Everyone)

By Eric Segall

There are at least fifteen people who have officially announced that they are running in the GOP primary to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States (the number increases almost hourly). It appears that as a group they oppose same-sex marriage, oppose the right to choose, want to repeal Obamacare, and don’t take climate change seriously. In other words, they are playing to the right wing of the party base.

For Huckabee, Santorum, and a few others, these positions seem earnestly held and reflective of their far-right places on our political spectrum. But for the more mainstream (and serious candidates) like Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio, who are running for more than a better contract and time slot from FoxNews, both their chances of winning the election, and the long term interests of the country (and even the Democratic Party), would be served if these candidates quickly move off these positions and started discussing the economy more broadly (jobs and income stagnation), foreign policy (the Middle East, Greece, etc.,), and those social issues the President of the United States can actually affect (such as the environment, our obesity epidemic, and immigration).

Bush has suggested that he is running a primary campaign that would work as well in the general election but, as Bloomberg News reported, he is nonetheless "running as a full-spectrum conservative rather than shying away from social issues." In his speech announcing his candidacy, he criticized the Democrats' "shoddy treatment" of a Christian charity by trying to force upon them an obligation to provide contraceptives (which isn't even true), and he has said that Obama Care is "flawed to its core," and that it "doesn't work." On same-sex marriage, his statements have been confusing at best.

Imagine if a Republican nominee said he was holding a press conference to make a dramatic announcement and then boldly said something like the following:
I know when to hold’em and I know when to fold ‘em. I am in favor of traditional marriage but the Supreme Court has ruled, and even though I disagree with the decision, like Al Gore in 2000, I have to accept it and move on. So does the country. As far as Obamacare is concerned, I am against that too, and we need to make it better and cheaper. But, it is also here to stay so rather than fight a losing battle to repeal it, as President I will keep the good parts, get rid of the bad parts, and make it a more user-friendly law. I will do this by working with the other side until we make this law, and health insurance in this country, the best it can be. And as for climate change, my mind is open to the seriousness of the problem. We need more evidence and more data but this issue requires our attention, and I intend to confront it with all the tools of the Executive Branch.
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that no GOP nominee can say these kinds of things and emerge victorious in the primaries. I don’t believe that. Sure Iowa and South Carolina may be tough but Republican primary voters in New York, California, and other big states are quite a different matter. Moreover, the media frenzy that would follow such fair and balanced statements would buy these candidates more free publicity than the Koch brothers could arrange in a year. Such pronouncements would make the front pages of national newspapers, land the candidate on cable news stations, and light a fire under social media that would likely result in a huge surge in the polls.

As far as the national election is concerned, taking these issues off the table would quite obviously help any Republican in the inevitable battle against Hillary Clinton. Same-sex marriage is polling very high, the pre-existing condition regulations and federal subsidies of Obamacare are popular, and an open mind on climate change would force Hillary to either agree or position herself farther to the "left" on the issue, which might not be popular among moderates and independents.

Professor Buchanan has suggested that there is little a GOP nominee can do in the general election because the party's policies, outside of social issues and health care, such as those on traditional economic and foreign policy questions "have been dragging the party down." Although I don't like the GOP's stance on those issues, I don't think they are quite as unpopular (or for that matter important in a general election) as Professor Buchanan suggests. In any event, personality matters more and a GOP candidate who distances himself from the crowd through a reasonable stance on highly visible issues might prove quite popular among undecided voters and independents.

One might argue the nominee can make these kinds of statements after primary season. The problem with that strategy, however, is that Americans hate phonies. A change of heart on these questions would not be nearly as effective as a proud “I’ve held these positions from the beginning” approach coupled with a Reaganesque embracing of strong leadership and “I’m my own person” type of campaign.

I am a loyal liberal Democrat, so why would I possibly suggest a winning strategy for the GOP? The answer is that in the long the run the debates between the two parties need to move to the left. The religious right of the Republican Party needs to be marginalized as a serious force on the political landscape so that we can have real debates on the economy, foreign policy, immigration, and climate change. One way of accomplishing that goal is for a moderate republican to succeed.

The far right will argue that the GOP tried that with McCain and Romney and it didn’t work, so only a firebrand like Cruz or a true believer like Huckabee is the answer. That argument, however, flies in the face of demographic trends showing that minority and especially Hispanic voter influence is increasing, especially in presidential election years.  Moreover, neither McCain nor Romney ran on anything positive and neither could be said to have a winning personality. The lessons of those two failed campaigns have nothing to do with the candidates failing to adopt the extreme positions of the right wing of the Republican Party.

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, the long-term interests of the Democratic Party (not to mention the country) would be furthered by a successful, moderate Republican nominee willing to turn his or her back on the party’s extreme elements. I hope that happens soon, but I also won’t be holding my breath.tfb