In retrospect, last year’s Republican primary process was entirely disconnected from the actual needs of the party. One candidate pledged to build a 20-foot-high electrical fence at the border crowned with the sign, in English and Spanish, “It will kill you — Warning.” Another promised, as president, to speak out against the damage done to American society by contraception. Another warned that vaccinations may cause “mental retardation.” In the course of 20 debates and in tens of millions of dollars of ads, issues such as upward mobility, education, poverty, safer communities and the environment were rarely mentioned.
A Republican recovery in presidential politics will depend on two factors. First, candidates will need to do more than rebrand existing policy approaches or translate them into Spanish. Some serious rethinking is necessary, particularly on economic matters. In our Commentary essay, we raise ideas such as ending corporate welfare, breaking up the mega-banks, improving the treatment of families in the tax code, and encouraging economic mobility through education reform and improved job training. Whatever form Republican proposals eventually take, they must move beyond Reagan-era nostalgia.
Second, Republican primary voters, party activists and party leaders have a choice to make, ruthlessly clarified by recent events. They can take the path of Democrats in 1988, doubling down on a faltering ideology. Or they can follow the model of Democrats in 1992 and their own party in 2000, giving their nominee the leeway needed to oppose outworn or extreme ideas and to produce an agenda relevant to our time.