Is there any hope for the GOP?

Today’s question: What’s the message to Republicans of two consecutive pastings at the polls, and what version of the GOP should rise from the ashes? Previously, Cain and Schnur discussed the political and historical implications of Barack Obama’s victory, voter enthusiasm about the election and the factors that shifted the race in the Democrats’ favor.

A generational shift the GOP needs to recognize
Point: Bruce E. Cain

Dan, you and I have been to enough post-election wrap-up conferences to know that the losers’ mistakes are always magnified and the winners’ tactical brilliance is exaggerated. If Barack Obama had lost, we would be talking about the bad Rick Warren interview, the gaffes by Joe Biden, the decision to target so broadly across the electoral map rather than focusing on the few states he needed to win and so on. But as I said Wednesday, if this were only about losing the presidency, the Republicans could shrug this off and wait for more favorable conditions to sweep them back into power. But there are some long-term demographic trends and general party tendencies that require much more serious consideration by thoughtful Republicans like yourself.

What are they? First is the continuing geographic and numerical expansion of the Latino population. Stationed in Washington for the University of California system, I see the East Coast going through the kind of rapid growth in the Latino population that Californians experienced in the late 1970s. At various times, the Republicans have made serious inroads into the Latino vote only to fall back by embracing harsh anti-immigrant policies (such as California’s Proposition 187 in 1994 and the House immigration bill in 2006). Nativism in the GOP stoked by terrorism fears after 9/11 pushed Latinos back into the welcoming embrace of the Democratic Party in the last two elections. This has to be taken seriously.

Secondly, the Republicans are struggling with holding on to the fast-growing southern (North Carolina and Virginia) and Southwestern states (New Mexico, Colorado and soon Arizona). As some excellent work from the Brookings Institution reveals, the common element here is the influx of educated white-collar workers. That leaves the geographic base of the Republican party in slow-growing and rural states. Shrinking into a declining economic and geographic base is a prescription for long-term trouble.

My theory about this -- and it is only a theory -- is that educated people generally prefer fact-based pragmatic governance to faith-based, damn-the-facts governance that rewards loyalty. The party that most successfully delivers along these lines will capture more of their votes. In this sense, the Democratic Party is ironically helped by its ideological incoherence. Its economic credo is really about smoothing the harsh edges around capitalism. There is no vision of a state-owned economy. There is no demand for complete equality, just a little bit more. And there is a huge faith in technology, science and rational inquiry.

The Republicans take great comfort in the fact that the polls still indicate that more people call themselves conservatives than liberals, but the reality is that the modal response is moderate and the labels of liberalism and conservatism are minimally two-dimensional and confusing. The Republicans are in a hole because they did not perform well in office over the last eight years. The pragmatic majority took notice and swung to the Democrats. The Republicans, in my opinion, need to prioritize pragmatism and policy competence ahead of ideological purity and faith-based instincts.

Finally, there is the new generation. Even before this election, the Generation Y kids were participating in public life at higher levels than their Generation X predecessors. What strikes me as I read their resumes and talk to them at the university is that they are more service-oriented (partly because community service is a requirement at many schools), technologically oriented (they have been running computers and electronics for their parents for years) and world-savvy (they intern as a way of testing out the world). Generation X was the “me” generation; Y seems to be the “us” cohort. Republicans may want to think about what that means for them.

Bruce E. Cain is a political science professor at UC Berkeley and executive director of the University of California Washington Center.

The Democrats don’t have it so easy
Point: Dan Schnur

After the 2004 presidential election, at a time when two of The Times’ finest reporters wrote a book called “One Party Country,” Democrats admirably resisted the temptation to take advice on how to rebuild their party from Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich or me. Similarly, I don’t know that many Republicans will necessarily agree with your suggested partisan contrast between “fact-based pragmatic governance” and what you call a “damn-the-facts” GOP philosophical approach. Obviously, there are plenty of people in both parties who would fit well into either of those two categorizations, so that might not be the best starting point for helpful guidance.

That said, there’s no question that Republicans have some serious work ahead of them to break out of the geographic and ideological corner into which the party found itself on Tuesday night. While most of the post-election analysis has focused on the inevitable debates between moderates and conservatives, the more important discussions over the next few years will be over the definition of conservatism and how it relates to this new political landscape. The Republican Party’s biggest challenge moving forward is adjusting an economic message to the working-class swing voters whose support they lost this year.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty calls them “Sam’s Club Republicans.” He and other members of the party’s next generation of leadership have begun the conversation of how to develop a pocketbook agenda that reaches the same voters who respond to the GOP on cultural and social matters. The most important debate within the Republican Party over the next few years will not be along moderate versus conservative lines or even social versus economic conservative. Rather, the real contest will be between economic traditionalists such as Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner on one hand and an emerging brand of economic populists such as Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee on the other.

While not as evident at this moment, the same intramural problem exists for Democrats as well. Some of Obama’s more economically successful voters may not be happy if their candidate’s proposed tax increases on them end up being larger than anticipated, or if he actually meant some of the anti-trade rhetoric he unleashed during the Democratic primaries. It appears from his adjusted rhetoric over the course of the fall campaign that Obama would prefer to ease toward the center. But an enlarged and empowered Democratic congressional majority might feel differently. Let’s agree that both parties still have significant distance to cover before their most recently arrived members feel welcome in their new homes.

Your analysis of the political challenges presented by the newest generation of voters is largely accurate. But again, these are challenges that both parties face. For example, globally oriented voters may have as many concerns about Democratic protectionist trade policy as they do about anti-illegal immigrant sentiment among Republicans. It’s not clear that one party or the other has the monopoly on community service or involvement in charitable causes. And there’s no evidence to suggest that Obama’s skillful use of Web technology will manifest itself into permanent differences between the two parties. But the first votes young people cast have a pronounced impact on their voting behavior throughout their adult lives. So Republicans have a very short time clock with which to work to win back these youngest members of the electorate.

Dan Schnur, national communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid and a veteran of four presidential and three California gubernatorial GOP campaigns, is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.