This is a threshold moment in American politics.
A Republican Party that only a few years ago envisioned a permanent majority must take steps to avoid going the way of the Whigs.
In 2013, the aftershocks of President Barack Obama's comfortable re-election victory, especially soul-searching by Republicans, will continue to dominate the news.
But it wasn't just Obama's personal appeal or his campaign's mastery of social media and personal data that won him another term. It wasn't Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair or even America's fast-changing demographics.
Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. The party's fundamental message is turning off a vast swath of middle-class Americans. The modern GOP's best path to success is when fewer people vote, not a healthy sign.
A generation of young voters, many turned off by the GOP's positions on issues like same-sex marriage, have aligned with the Democrats, just as Ronald Reagan won over a generation of young voters three decades ago. More than seven in 10 Hispanic voters backed Obama over Mitt Romney in November, while as many as eight million white voters that were expected to turn out opted to stay home.
"The Republican challenge is not about better voter-turnout software; it is about policy," Republican strategist Mike Murphy wrote recently in Time. "We repel Latinos, the fastest-growing voter group in the country, with our nativist opposition to immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship. We repel younger voters, who are much more secular than their parents, with our opposition to same-sex marriage and our scolding tone on social issues. And we have lost much of our once-solid connection to the middle class on kitchen-table economic issues."
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Newt Gingrich so often seems more like a punch line than a political leader that it's easy to forget he had a real shot at winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Remember his huge South Carolina primary victory 11 months ago, when the GOP establishment lambasted his attacks on Romney's business record and Gingrich dominated the debate stage?
"That's part of what a campaign is about, to raise questions and see whether or not your competitor can answer them effectively before you get to a general election where you know those questions are going to be asked," Gingrich said during a rowdy Jan. 17 Fox News debate in Myrtle Beach.
The former speaker's campaign fizzled two weeks later in Florida, but he proved dead right: Romney never did or could effectively respond to the inevitable Democratic criticism of the vast profits he made in deals that left businesses shuttered and hundreds of Americans unemployed. In fact the former Massachusetts governor only bolstered his image as callous and out of touch with real Americans with his suggestion that 47 percent of us are moochers.
Given Gingrich's prescience, perhaps we should pay closer attention to what he's saying now about fellow Republicans.
"If their competitor in '16 is going to be Hillary Clinton, supported by Bill Clinton and presumably a still relatively popular president Barack Obama, trying to win that will be truly the Super Bowl. And the Republican Party today is incapable of competing at that level,'' he said on Meet the Press earlier this month. "We didn't blow it because of Mitt Romney. We blew it because of a party which has refused to engage the reality of American life and refused to take — to think through what the average American needs for a better future."
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As we close out 2012, it seems about the only thing that really happened this year was the presidential election. Practically every other major news story — Hurricane Sandy, Benghazi, the economy, the upholding of Obamacare, growing acceptance of same-sex marriage — were pieces of that epic campaign. Even the lack of conversation about guns and violence related to the campaign.
Many Republicans understand the challenge going forward. Two top contenders for the presidency in 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, recently gave high-profile speeches conspicuously focused on the middle class and have-nots.
"One of the fundamental challenges before us is to find an appropriate and sustainable role for government in closing this gap between the dreams of millions of Americans and the opportunities for them to actually realize them," Rubio said.
Another new-generation Republican, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in a Wall Street Journal column this month said birth control should be available over the counter. Pundits immediately wondered whether he had killed his prospects in the 2016 Iowa caucuses likely to be dominated by social conservatives.
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Among the biggest challenges facing the GOP: an all-consuming fear of pressure from the right.
That's why in one presidential primary debate, all eight candidates said they would oppose a budget deal with a ratio of 10 parts spending cuts to one part tax increases. That's why Romney, determined to knock down rival Rick Perry, staked out such a hard-line immigration stance that he antagonized a crucial part of the general election electorate.
Polls consistently show an overwhelming majority of Americans are comfortable with Obama's effort to raise tax rates on Americans earning at least $250,000 a year.
But Capitol Hill is a different world. Most Republican House members spent the past year treating that as a radical and reckless concept.
"I'm often reminded when I speak to the Republican leadership that the majority of their caucus' membership come from districts that I lost," Obama said earlier this month. "And so sometimes they may not see an incentive in cooperating with me, in part because they're more concerned about challenges from a tea party candidate, or challenges from the right, and cooperating with me may make them vulnerable."
Today's Republican Party, according to an analysis by respected political scientists Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University, is the most conservative GOP in 100 years.
It may be out of step with a majority of voters in many areas, but in the GOP-controlled House, members don't have to worry about the moderate middle. Legislatures draw district lines to protect incumbents and minimize competitive seats. More than 80 percent of Republican House members this year were re-elected with majorities of at least 55 percent.
It's easy to be a conservative, no-compromise purist when representing a safe district. But it doesn't make for effective governing, it doesn't make sense to average, middle-class Americans, and it doesn't win national elections.
Democrats found their way out of the political wilderness of the 1980s by moving toward the center under Bill Clinton. Whether and how Republicans follow that lead may be the story of 2013.
Contact Adam Smith at [email protected].