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Philip Klinkner Headshot

Back to the Future for the GOP?

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As the networks call Ohio for the Democratic candidate, Republicans see a close presidential election slip away from them. Pundits and commentators quickly declare that the party is doomed to defeat and irrelevance unless it finds a way to reform itself. Some Republicans argue that their candidate was too moderate, and that they need someone who offers a real choice and can better articulate its conservative values. Others claim that the party needs to moderate its stand on divisive social issues, such as abortion, so that it can better appeal to women and young people. Many predict a civil war within the party between these two factions. Some even argue that the Republican "brand" has become so unpopular that the party should change its name.

The Republicans in the aftermath of Mitt Romney's loss to Barack Obama? No, the Republican party after Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

This example shows the danger of over-interpreting election results. As it turned out, the Republicans weren't doomed to follow the Whigs into the political graveyard and they bounced back very quickly. Long gas lines, high inflation, and a string of foreign policy crises doomed the Carter presidency and in 1980 Ronald Reagan -- a candidate that most Republicans in 1976 considered unelectable -- won the White House in a landslide.

The 2012 election was not a massive rejection of conservatism or the first in a series of exploding demographic time bombs that will doom them to an ever shrinking share of the electorate. In fact, Mitt Romney lost a narrow race under difficult circumstances for a challenger. Most political science forecasting models show that incumbent presidents who preside over a growing economy, even one with slow growth and high unemployment, are likely to be reelected.

Alter those circumstances slightly, and Romney may well have won election. As for 2016, no one knows what the next four years will hold, but there's no reason to think that the Republicans won't have a shot at winning the next election.

This doesn't mean that the Republicans should ignore rethinking what their party stands for or what needs to do to win. Perhaps the best way for the Republicans to build for the future is to look back to their past. Following their loss in 1976, the GOP picked former Tennessee Senator Bill Brock, to lead the Republican National Committee. Rather than focusing on the issues that divided the party, Brock stuck to the "nuts and bolts" organizational issues that united all factions of the party: improving fundraising, recruiting strong candidates, training party operatives, and developing new campaign techniques.

But Brock also understood that the party needed to address the issues. In one speech he said that while "Democrats might have the wrong solutions, Republicans don't even admit the existence of a problem." In response, Brock created numerous policy council and even a scholarly journal to explore and publicize new ideas. It was here that many of the ideas, such as lower taxes and supply-side economics, that became central to the Republican ideology were first discussed and developed.

Today's Republicans could also use a similar organizational revamping. It's clear, as many Republican operatives will admit, that they have fallen behind the Democrats in important areas like voter targeting, small donor fundraising, and social media outreach.

Just as importantly, Republicans could also benefit from a serious discussion about their approach to issues. Talk radio and cable news shows might be entertaining and important for rallying the troops, but they are terrible for developing substantive and creative ways to address important problems.

Brock's efforts didn't win the election for the Republicans in 1980, but they helped the party to take advantage of a favorable political climate and to come into office with a coherent agenda for governing. Perhaps by following Brock's example, today's Republicans will be able to do the same.

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