The Republican Party has won a majority of the popular vote just once in the last six elections. That dismal track record followed a party revival in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan led the GOP to three straight popular vote majorities.
To understand what went wrong, it’s important to remember Reagan was an insurgent candidate who defeated the Republican establishment of his era. When Reagan left office, however, the old establishment reasserted control. They consistently nominated candidates for president who opposed Reagan in 1980 and consistently lost elections.
The difference is that Ronald Reagan believed in the American people and was skeptical of government. Today’s Republican establishment believes in government and is skeptical of the American people. That’s why most Republican voters today believe the party is out of touch with the base.
Consider Mitt Romney’s infamous comments about the 47 percent who are allegedly dependent upon government. After the election, Romney even said that President Obama won by giving “gifts” to these dependent Americans. The Republican establishment grumbles about makers versus takers.
Reagan had a different view. He asked, “How can we love our country and not love our countrymen?” When he passed a major tax reform bill, he was proud that it removed millions of low-income Americans from the income tax rolls. Reagan looked at low-income Americans and saw people who wanted an opportunity to work hard and get ahead. He saw a nation that was happy to extend a helping hand to all who were willing to work.
Today’s Republican establishment looks at the same group and declares them to be deadbeats waiting for a gift from the rest of us. Today, voters still agree with Reagan on this point. Fifty-nine percent think the first $20,000 anyone earns should be tax free. Just 24 percent are opposed.
Remember, Reagan’s view won a majority of the vote three times in three elections. Without Reagan, the GOP establishment has won a majority twice in the last 11 tries.
For Republicans to win again, they will have to respect the people they want to represent. This cannot be faked and will likely require substantive changes in party leadership. A good starting point would be to recognize that tens of millions of Americans see an economy that is rigged in favor of those who are already well off. Rather than complaining about it, Republicans could address the issue by cutting government programs that benefit the wealthy.
One example, recently brought to light by Hurricane Sandy is the government practice of subsidizing flood insurance for those fortunate enough to own beachfront property. That’s a program that benefits the well-off more than anybody else, and only 31 percent of voters think it should continue. There are plenty of other perks like this that could be eliminated.
On a grander scale, lower- and middle-income Americans would like to see all personal tax deductions eliminated for those who make more than $250,000 a year. That’s consistent with the stated Republican goal of major tax reform and lower tax rates.
And the GOP could turn its budget-cutting attention to the corporate welfare programs that are costing the nation tens of billions of dollars every year with little public support.
But more than any specifics, Republicans need to believe and convey an attitude that is based upon basic American principles of fair play and ensuring that every American has a chance to pursue their dreams.