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GOP's Post-Mortem Post-Mortem

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Has it really been a whole year since the Republican Party put out their "post-mortem" document, which tried to identify why they got shellacked so badly in the 2012 election? Since it's not a big date on my political calendar, the one-year anniversary kind of snuck up on me, I'll admit. But since the Republican National Committee used the term "post-mortem" in the first place, I guess it's now time for a post-mortem on the post-mortem (insert your own zombie or "dead man walking" joke here, if you must).

The R.N.C. actually did a whole lot of soul-searching when they came up with their original document last year. It offered up many suggestions for improving the party's chances to win national elections. Some of these have been aggressively implemented and others have been altogether ignored. The implemented ones are mostly structural party changes, and the ideas that have been ignored are mostly suggested policy changes. This makes sense, because the party machinery controls (or has direct influence) over the structure of the party, but policy itself is more in the realm of what already-elected Republicans can agree upon.

It's tempting for Democrats to dismiss the post-mortem of the post-mortem as nothing short of celebrating abject failure. The biggest example usually given is how intractable the House Republicans have been on comprehensive immigration reform. But before we get to that, it is worth examining the structural changes happening in the Republican Party, because Democrats really can't afford to ignore such things.

The smartest thing Republicans have done so far is to work on creating a technological party infrastructure which barely existed in 2012. Mitt Romney's campaign tried to field a giant database to help with their "get out the vote" effort on election day, but it performed miserably and proved to be pretty useless. Since then, Republicans have become much more aware of the scope of the problem. Democrats -- led by Barack Obama -- have held an overwhelming advantage in the micro-targeting of voters by technological means for the past two election cycles. Assumably, all this knowledge and data will also benefit the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. But Democrats won't have such an overwhelming advantage on this front anymore, because Republicans are working hard to catch up. Republicans opened a shop in Silicon Valley with a Latin name that can be translated as "prepare for war" (and is also the name of a type of ammunition, to boot). Democrats can make fun of this all they want, but they'd better be prepared for a more-level playing field next time around.

The other two major changes the R.N.C. has been making behind the scenes are both intended to get a much firmer grip on their presidential primary season. A new calendar was rolled out which will tweak the Republican campaign a bit (if, that is, all the states follow it -- which remains a big unanswered question). There will be the traditional frontrunners (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada), then a period where all races will award proportional delegates, then a period where races can be "winner take all." This is designed to reduce the frontloading of states into the earliest weeks of primary season (with stiff penalties for states that don't comply, although it remains to be seen whether such penalties will actually be enforced when the convention opens). The second month, all Republican primaries will have to award delegates in some proportional fashion to the actual vote, so that one candidate doesn't blow everyone else out of the water too early. Starting in the third month, there will be plenty of "winner take all" states which is designed to end the contest fairly quickly, instead of dragging it out endlessly between two more-evenly matched opponents.

That's the plan, at any rate. It may have some flaws, and it will likely have some unintended consequences (as almost all political schemes do), but at least Republicans are thinking about such things and trying a few changes to their process. I am not aware of any such effort being undertaken on the Democratic side at all. Remember: the longest and bitterest primary battle in recent years was waged between two Democrats, one of whom refused to concede until after the very last primary occurred. There was much heartfelt arguing over the concept of "superdelegates." Since the Hillary-versus-Barack slugfest, however, Democrats haven't made a whole lot of structural changes to their calendar at all. There is the feeling that Obama did much better in the 2008 general election because he had already faced fierce opposition in the primaries, which toughened him up for the November race. There was also no real need to change the system in 2012, because everyone knew who the nominee was going to be.

This may be nothing short of misguided complacency. At the moment, Hillary Clinton is being spoken of in terms of inevitability. Just like 2012, pundits tell us, there will be one clear Democratic candidate, so the primaries are really nothing more than a foregone conclusion. This, however, is exactly what people were saying in 2006. Call it the "inevitability of Hillary" outlook. Or you can use another word often used before the meteoric rise of Barack Obama -- Hillary's "coronation." Of course, we all know how that worked out, don't we?

Now, I'm not suggesting that history is going to repeat itself. An easier question to ask is: what happens if Hillary Clinton doesn't actually run (say, for medical reasons)? We'll have a wide-open field of candidates, struggling for attention. But they'll be working within essentially the same system that gave us a primary season which lasted until June, in 2008. No major tweaks have been made to this system in the meantime. Which sets up the possibility that the Republican primary season goes a lot smoother than the Democratic one.

The third technical issue Republicans are trying to solve is a harder one -- the issue of debates. Pretty much anyone you ask will tell you there were too many debates in the Republican schedule last time around, and too many candidates on the stage to have any meaningful debate at all. The R.N.C. is well aware of this, and they're desperately trying to limit both the number of debates and who gets to moderate them. Now, candidate forums can be called by any organization, and it is up to the candidates themselves whether they show up for them or not. Unlike the primary election schedule, it is something the party does not have full control over. But say the R.N.C. has its way, and limits the number of debates to something manageable (there were over 20 of them in the last cycle). And say they somehow convince the sponsors of the debates to only have conservatives asking the candidates questions.

Is this really going to help Republicans or hurt them? Granted, conservative commentators often have a much better grasp of the schismatic differences between the various factions of their own party, so the questions asked would be more penetrating when it comes to drawing distinctions between the candidates. This would indeed give Republican primary voters a clearer choice between candidates. But the foundational problem with primary debates is impossible to remove. Primary voters (of both parties) are the most committed of the rank-and-file party base. On the Republican side (these days) this means debates will examine the differences between the candidates from the hard Right, from the extremely hard Right, and from the fanatically-fringiest Right of all. And the candidates themselves won't even be able to fall back on their favorite "it's the liberal media's fault for asking trick questions!" refrain, if all the moderators are card-carrying conservatives. To put this another way, any tiny hint of moderate views will be mercilessly punished. By the primary voters themselves, and by the other candidates in the field.

Which leads us back to the post-mortem's post-mortem. None of the basic fundamental policy positions of the Republican Party have changed all that much, but the electorate is indeed changing. The whole point of the post-mortem was to identify demographic groups that Republicans were losing badly, and try to change their party to be more welcoming. They have made an effort to actually hire some people to do "outreach" to communities where Republicans are getting fewer and fewer votes, but it's hard to understand what all these new hires are supposed to be saying, because the policies haven't changed a bit. Republicans are still gleefully waging their War On Women (hardly a month goes by without something seriously idiotic said by some Republican on the subject, to say nothing of the laws they've been passing), they still call any attempt at immigration reform "amnesty," and most of them refuse to budge on social issues such as gay marriage.

Democrats, obviously, are quite happy for the Republican Party to drift further and further right, because this almost guarantees that whatever presidential nominee emerges from the Republican primaries is going to have already taken some positions that the mainstream of American voters consider very extreme. Systematic changes to the primary process likely won't alter this basic political equation much. The Republican Party is becoming more and more out of step with the mainstream of American thought, and one year after their navel-gazing post-mortem exercise, Republicans certainly don't seem inclined to change this in any way.

Long-term, this spells doom for the Republican brand, as its most loyal voters get older and older. But short-term is a different story. Many Democrats have already moved on, mentally, to focusing on the 2016 contest. There's a reason for this: they're facing a very tough election cycle this year, and even holding on to control of the Senate is in serious question. Which is why most pieces from liberal commentators have focused almost exclusively on the ideological problems which still remain in the Republican Party, one year after their post-mortem. Democrats can all tell themselves that it's only a matter of time before the Republican Party drops dead from its own ideological refusal to change, but that ignores the way Republicans are going to see themselves after this election. If the GOP posts big wins in Congress, after all, Republicans are going to be convinced that what they're doing is working just fine and doesn't need changing one tiny little bit.

Republicans have an obvious advantage in midterm elections, because their voters reliably turn out to vote -- while many Democrats stay home. This advantage hasn't changed, and is one big reason why Democrats are in such peril now. The post-mortem they came up with focused in on the presidential contest, though. Republicans have made an investment in their technology to get their voters out, which will pay dividends in every election, presidential or not. They've revamped their primary calendar to more closely control the process. They seem committed to revamping the debates, as well. If 2014 is a blowout for Republicans, though (think: 2010), then the ideological policy proposals from the post-mortem are going to be continued to be ignored. This will give Democrats a definite advantage in 2016, as they are now much closer to the mainstream of American political thought. How these advantages and disadvantages all add up remains to be seen, though. Still, Democrats would do well to avoid the urge to just laugh at the lack of ideological movement, one year after the Republicans' post-mortem. Because the next time the parties face each other over control of the White House, Republicans may have fixed some of their non-ideological nuts-and-bolts problems, nullifying some advantages Democrats have been taking for granted.

 

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