GOP's "happy loser" syndrome: Why the right may not want the White House

Conventional wisdom says Republicans need to evolve and get younger. But that overlooks their true agenda

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 23, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.            (AP/Jonathan Ernst/David J. Phillip)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. (AP/Jonathan Ernst/David J. Phillip)

Politico has tackled the GOP's "extremist problem" and they've decided that the party is in real trouble -- or, as they call it, "losing by winning." They point out the obvious fact that the Republicans can win elections in off-years by stoking their base but will have difficulty cobbling together a national majority to win the presidency two years later.

“The Republican Party has essentially now two wings: a congressional wing and the national wing,” the veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff said at a recent Pew Research Center forum on so-called millennial voters, those from 18 to 29 years of age. The congressional wing is thriving, especially in the South, in districts that are 75 percent, or even 80 percent, white, and where every incumbent’s worst fear is a challenge from the right.

But McInturff summed up the national party’s prospects with an old line from Mr. T in “Rocky III”: “Prediction? Pain!” He said the party’s “genetic instinct” is that younger voters don’t vote, and too many Republicans don’t understand the coming demographic wave. “Why am I a Republican?” he asked. “I believe in the power of markets. The marketplace is, you will lose — keep losing national elections — until you keep up.”

I wonder if Republican pollsters were telling them the same thing in, say, 1966, when the demographics looked like this:

Now that was a demographic time bomb that encompassed the most radical left-wing young generation in history. And guess what happened?  A powerful conservative movement happened that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan just 14 years later. Perhaps it's not genetics that is determining their behavior but rather their own experience.

This is not to say that millennials will not be much more liberal than their baby boomer forebears turned out to be, but it would likely have been predicted by many after 1964 that the Republicans had better figure out how to cater to "the youth" or they were doomed. But they didn't. They catered to fear and resentment and anger and loss and they built their movement around it.

And yes, these are different times with a very different culture. Nothing ever plays itself out exactly the same way twice. Instead of a period of cynicism and lost faith, like the 1970s, perhaps the next decade will be one of high hopes and renewed idealism and that will motivate the youth to work for progress, unlike their disappointing boomer parents and grandparents who pretty much succumbed to liberal disillusionment. But it's probably a mistake to believe that it is inevitable. Tough times can make people more expansive and idealistic or it can make them more mean and insular. And considering the challenges we face with climate change, income inequality, money in politics and extremism of all stripes, there's a good chance that we're going to have some tough times ahead.

None of this is to say that Republicans are going to win the presidency any time soon. For the moment it appears that the Democrats hold the majority on a national basis. But conservatives tend to have more patience than liberals and they may very well think the status quo is just fine. After all, with the exception of Obamacare (granted, a big exception) they've been getting everything they want as an extremist minority party.

As Matthew O'Brien of the Atlantic adroitly pointed out a while back:

[I]f one side keeps moving further and further, say, right, they can eventually get a "compromise" that gets them more than they asked for at the beginning.

Like with the budget. You can see that in the chart below from Harry Stein and Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress that looks at proposed spending levels the last few years. There's been so much austerity that the new Patty Murray-Paul Ryan deal would actually have less discretionary spending in 2014 than Ryan's original budget called for.

It's very hard to see how that's a losing record, particularly when they managed to accomplish that through sheer force from a majority in only one house of Congress. Do they need to compromise their principles on the stump to get what they want? It sure doesn't look like it.

But what about foreign policy and national security? Surely they would love to be in charge of the U.S. military again and have control over America's global role in the world, right? Well, that's not clear either. They do have some pressures coming from their own youth faction, however small that might be, toward a less interventionist foreign policy. But at the same time their regional base in the South dictates that they must maintain their position as the aggressive defenders of America as a globally dominant superpower. They are better able to thread that needle outside the White House rather than within it. This way they can criticize the Democrats from all angles and use their power to push the Democrats further to the right on these issues than even their own youthful voters would prefer.

And in any case, it's not as if the Democrats are a pacifist party. On the substance, foreign policy is a bipartisan affair for the most part, so it's only the politics that are truly relevant. After the Iraq War debacle the GOP has good reason to take some time to rebuild its own image by carping about the failures of the Democrats so they can even the score. (See: Benghazi!™)  And nothing causes the Democrats more heartburn than the ongoing battle between their hawks and their doves.

It may seem counterintuitive, but other than ego and a basic thirst for power -- admittedly a major motivation for all politicians -- there is very little rational reason for the Republicans to want to gain the White House for the foreseeable future. The culture wars will rage on regardless, thus maintaining their fundraising and organizing functions among the religious right. They can avoid a major fight within the party over foreign policy and national security while continuing to attack the Democrats from all sides. And they are achieving their economic goals with more efficiency than if they had the majority themselves. The Supreme Court is firmly in reactionary hands. Even Obamacare will prove to be a fertile ground for stoking resentment, which always feeds the conservative soul. As long as they can maintain their power in the House, they can work their will without any of the responsibility or accountability of governance.  I'd call that winning by losing.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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