The most prescient lesson Republicans took away from the 2012 presidential election was the need to pay attention to demographics.
As Americans are becoming more racially, economically and socially divided than at any point in our country’s history, the Republican Party’s narrow appeals to the descendants of WASP’s and Rockefeller’s need to be replaced by broader, more inclusive policies championing America’s free-market history and celebrating the opportunities community structures like families and religious institutions provide.
There is evidence the GOP has learned this lesson. In a Jan. 24 speech to the Republican National Committee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindalcalled on his party to “recalibrate the compass of conservatism,” and “shift…the ambition of our conservative movement… toward the mission of growth.” Jindal’s speech recognized the strategic need for a makeover – without providing any details. It was, I thought, an acknowledgement of the GOP’s most severe problem and signal that tactics, if not ideologies, were shifting.
How then, did Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s speechwriters miss this memo?
Let’s back up for a second. On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union address to Congress. In the address, he outlined an ambitious agenda more akin to a progressive wish list than a set of policy proposals.
These reforms, which included a federal minimum wage hike to nine dollars an hour, full-day preschool for every child in America and a “Fix-It-First” program designed to shore up infrastructure (think stimulus 2.0), are intelligent steps on the path to renew America. They aim to address some of our most pressing problems: a depressed consumer economy riddled with unseemly amounts of private household debt, a social fabric being torn asunder by ever-increasing levels of income inequality and a decaying infrastructure that makes starting a small business or safely transporting commodities from coast-to-coast a Herculean task.
Very few members of the GOP would contend these problems are imaginary, but their obstinacy toward any Obama-led proposal has been both collective and fierce. And while disagreement is healthy, nihilism is not. Which brings us back to Rubio.
It should be noted that giving the response to the State of the Union is equivalent to drawing the short straw. You really can’t win; there’s not enough attention, applause or time to give the impression of seriously dignified oratory.
But Rubio has been a rising star in the Republican establishment. By virtue of being young, smart and ethnic, he’s been able to capture a Senate seat without any major obstacles, giving hope to some the right-side of American politics might move away from its xenophobic, practically ecclesiastical roots to a more docile form of free-market individualism. But that’s not what was on display Tuesday night.
Instead, Rubio’s speech took us on a greatest-hits tour of cornerstone Republican beliefs, ranging from old-as-time ideology – such as his assertion that “The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families,” – to myths disproven with readily-available data – for instance, his claim that “a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.”
Rubio didn’t talk about how to strengthen social structures like families or mend social gaps. He didn’t take a stance on investment or infrastructure development. His vision for America was hopelessly tied to some notion that all Americans need is less government in their lives to get back on their feet. Jindal now sounds like a reasonable reformer, while Rubio echoes inert ideals is an amusing bit of irony. Three years ago, Jindal was lambasted for delivering a similarly lackluster State of the Union response.
If Republicans really see a need to shift their platform, in terms of both policy and public perception, sooner is better. I see the seeds of what we might label New Conservatism all around – an emphasis on markets, social structures, traditions and empirical data. If it were coupled with a party appreciating the value of investment, immigration and child welfare, it could be a powerful and productive ideology.
Demography isn’t destiny, but it is reality. The sooner both sides of the aisle realize this, the sooner we’ll have real argumentation in our government.
Nathaniel Olson (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in political science, history and psychology.