11/15/2012 07:03 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

After Landslide Defeat, Republicans Must Reject Extremism

Republicans lost the 2012 elections about as badly as a political party can lose. Not only did Mitt Romney suffer a landslide defeat in the Electoral College, but the Democrats picked up three seats in the Senate, winning even in traditionally safe Republican states like North Dakota. This defeat cannot be blamed on tactical missteps and a bad presidential candidate, instead, Republicans must understand that the party of Reagan has become branded as the party of Rush Limbaugh -- and moderate voters have totally rejected this vitriolic conservatism. Unless the Republican Party rejects its reactionary positions on social issues and becomes the party of problem solving rather than gridlock, it will lose election after election no matter what tactical changes are made by Republican campaigns.

Every political movement has extremists, but rational political leaders try to marginalize them so the party can attract the centrist voters whose changing preferences decide elections. During the Bush presidency, Democrats distanced themselves from the hateful vitriol of the Daily Kos, and other extremist websites. Although they opposed President Bush's agenda, they were willing to work with him on issues like education reform, where Ted Kennedy joined with Republicans to shepherd No Child Left Behind through the Congress. Since Obama's election however, the Republican Party has been unable to marginalize its extremists and unwilling to work with the president. They fought Obamacare tooth-and-nail, vowed to repeal it, but have offered no alternative health care plan. The budget deficit is supposedly one of the top priorities of Republicans, yet, for the last two years, Congressional Republicans have opposed closing of wasteful tax loopholes unless it is accompanied by matching reductions in marginal tax rates. When it was time for the debt ceiling to be raised so the Treasury could pay America's bills, the Republican Congress became the first in history to try and make America default on its debt. Although a compromise was eventually reached, America's credit rating was downgraded because of the Republican intransigence. This scorched earth extremism is not how a serious political movement behaves, and yet it is how Republicans approached every legislative battle of the Obama presidency.

The failings of the Republican Congress paled in comparison to the bizarre behavior of Republican state legislatures. Nationwide, newly elected Republicans proposed legislation so extreme that it became easy for Democrats to accuse them of waging a war on women. Louisiana legislators passed a law forcing women to listen to their fetus's heartbeat before having an abortion; in South Dakota, a bill to provide legal protection to vigilantes who kill abortion providers was passed out of committee; and Rick Santorum waged a primary campaign with opposition to birth control as a major issue. These positions appealed only to evangelical Christians, the faction that produced both Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, two Republicans who squandered easily winnable elections with their extremism on abortion. Moderate voters, including the affluent professionals who were once the core of the Republican electorate, were horrified.

Pro-life values have always been a part of the Republican Party, but until recently the Republican Party focused its national stances on abortion in areas where the pro-life position was popular: parental notification when minors have abortions, severely restricting partial-birth abortions, and preventing medical institutions opposed to abortions from being forced to perform them. In contrast, the current Republican Party has made staunch opposition to abortion a litmus test for national prominence. Moderate voters have been alienated from the Republican Party by these increasingly extreme pro-life positions, just as they were once alienated by Democrats' support of gruesome partial-birth abortions.

From 1972 to 1992, the Democrats were dominated by the left wing and lost all but one Presidential election. Even when moderate Democrats were nominated, they were dragged down by the perception of Democrats as being captive to the most liberal elements of their party. On issues ranging from crime to national defense, the Democrats held positions that Americans found unrealistic and out-of-touch. The Republicans have now been put in the same position; even moderates like Mitt Romney have the albatross of Rush Limbaugh's extremism tied around their neck. Gallup polling indicates that most moderates viewed Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party, and only 25 percent of them had a favorable opinion of the talk show host. In and of itself, having a radio personality rather than an elected official perceived as the leader of a political movement is a major problem for the Republican Party. When the perceived party leader routinely makes offensive statements -- calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" for wanting the government to mandate insurance coverage of contraception, equating Obama's Presidency to "the white kids [getting] beat up on with the black kids cheering," just to name a few, voters will embrace any sane alternative.

Voters in 2012 did not adore Barack Obama like they did in 2008, but regardless of how much voters were disappointed by the economic recovery, no matter if they supported his plans for health care or for expanded financial regulation, voters trusted that Barack Obama was not beholden to the lunatic fringe of his party. Thanks to Rush Limbaugh, Todd Akin, and countless Republican state legislators, Mitt Romney could not earn that same trust. This problem cannot be fixed with symbolism -- simply featuring more women and Hispanics will not win back these lost demographics. Neither can better electoral tactics make extremism viable, even if Romney could have matched the Obama campaign's efficacy at microtargeting and voter turnout, it would only have narrowed the margin by which he lost. Voters will never support a party defined by Rush Limbaugh, and only by reclaiming the center can Republicans become viable again.