A possible winning GOP formula

Perry Bacon Jr.:

The Republican Party is doing pretty well electorally with its current strategy of wooing an overwhelmingly White voting coalition while using tactics such as aggressive gerrymandering and voting restrictions to overcome its lack of a national majority or appeal to many voters of color. But sustaining this path in a diversifying nation — a trend underscored dramatically by the release this week of 2020 Census data — requires increasingly racist and antidemocratic actions and rhetoric. While my policy preferences are closer to those of the Democrats, I desperately want an avowedly multiracial and pro-democracy Republican Party that hasn’t given up on winning a majority of the national popular vote — because that would be best for the country

The Republicans can still become that party. How? I suggest Republicans think: “What would appeal to Black people who might currently vote Democratic but aren’t progressives?”

Millions of Black people have attitudes and values that in theory could push them toward backing the GOP, such as an emphasis on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, favorable views toward religion and the military, and skepticism about left-wing policies like Medicare-for-all and death penalty abolition. But while White and Latino people who are conservative mostly back Republicans, Joe Biden won about 60 percent of the vote among Black voters with very conservative views on policy issues and about 80 percent among those who lean conservative, according to polling from the Democracy Fund Voter Story Group. Black voters who aren’t that progressive (so either moderate or conservative) are at most 6 percent of the total electorate, and many of them are fairly tied to the Democratic Party, so appealing to this group alone won’t lift the GOP to a majority. But a Republican Party that appeals to more moderate Black people will likely also be more appealing to more moderate voters of all races.

What would a Republican agenda for Black voters with some moderate and conservative views look like?

1. No more restrictive voter laws. A big reason that even Black people with more conservative inclinations have long backed Democrats is the perception that the Republican Party is hostile to Black people. Right now, that’s also reality — the GOP is constantly advocating voting laws that will have the effect of making it harder for Black people in particular to cast ballots and have their votes counted. This approach is toxic to winning over more than a tiny fraction of Black voters — and it turns off non-Black people too.

2. Embrace nondenominational church messaging. Basically all types of Christian churches have lost members over the past two decades except one: so-called nondenominational churches.

These kind of churches, located in suburban communities all over the country, generally oppose abortion rights and same-sex marriage and have a conservative theology overall. Most members vote Republican. That said, if you go to a nondenominational church, you’re aren’t likely to hear the pastor say anything negative from the pulpit about abortion, homosexuality or the Democratic Party (or anything at all). Instead, you will hear upbeat messages about how you can achieve your goals through a combination of faith in God and hard work.

I am not embracing the theology of these churches. But they tend to have multiracial, multiparty memberships, unlike most churches in the United States. It is a kind of soft conservatism — a Republicanism without the anger that you hear from people such as former president Donald Trump.

3. Back away from Fox News. Angry Republicanism is what you hear on Fox News and conservative talk radio and from Trump-allied Christian conservative leaders. This kind of Republicanism is centered around anxiety about the demographic changes that are making the country less White and Christian. Unsurprisingly, it often turns off even conservative-leaning Black people, other non-White Americans, LGBTQ people and younger voters in particular. It will be hard for Republicans to win the support of a majority of Americans if they remain obsessed with exciting Fox News viewers.

See Reagan, Ronald.

4. Become the education party. The push from recent administrations, Democratic and Republican, to federalize education policy and increase standardized testing was unpopular with both Republican and Democratic voters. But Americans across racial and partisan lines are nonetheless obsessed with getting their kids the best possible education. Republican governors are always trying to entice businesses to their states. Those governors should apply the same approach to education and start aggressively courting award-winning teachers, principals and superintendents from across the country, offering them the best possible pay, benefits and flexibility and then brag about being the state that is best for education. No matter how much Republicans tout “school choice” and Democrats oppose it, the reality is that most people don’t think about education in such political terms. They just want their kids in an excellent school.

Which party promoted school choice in Milwaukee, an area where that party gets few votes, so that families stuck in areas with poor public schools could afford to send their kids to better schools? Not the Democrats, who are beholden to teacher unions. Which party passed legislation to allow school districts to pay better teachers or teachers of in-demand subjects more than the previous one-size-fits-all pay approach? Not the Democrats.

5. Cut taxes, not Medicaid. Neither party seems to really care about deficits very much — and increasingly, economists don’t, either. That’s an opportunity for Republicans. More moderate and conservative Black Americans, like most Americans, don’t support the cuts to programs like Medicaid that right-wing Republicans favor. One reason for that opposition is that such programs tend to disproportionately help Black people. So Republicans should focus on cutting taxes, which is clearly at the core of the party, but not on cutting spending.

Adopting this agenda of course involves a trade-off — Republicans might win some more moderate voters but lose their most Trumpy ones. But that’s a good trade electorally. George W. Bush ran on this kind of platform — and he won a higher percentage of the popular vote in both 2000 and 2004 than any Republican nominee since. Bush, whatever his faults, clearly embraced a multiracial, pro-democracy vision that is normatively good for the United States.

I know that Bush’s brother, Jeb, also ran on this kind of Republicanism in 2016 and did terribly in the GOP primaries. And I also know that many likely 2024 Republican candidates, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, are building a following in a Trumpian mold. But I expect some more-Trump-skeptical Republicans, such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), to run in 2024, too. They should embrace the approach I’ve laid out — and not just because it’s morally correct.

It’s natural that aspiring Republican presidential candidates would emulate Trump. But what about the man who beat Trump? Biden won his party’s primary by suggesting he was the candidate best-positioned to win the general election. A Republican disavowing voter suppression, talking about education and generally appealing to Black conservatives and other more moderate voters would be very electable.

Yes, at this moment, the idea that such a person could win the Republican nomination is far-fetched. But the path to a multiracial, pro-democracy, national-majority Republican Party is there nonetheless — and I hope a few aspiring Republican presidents take it.

This flies in the face of the current conventional political wisdom to motivate your own base to vote and not care about growing the base. A candidate interested in appealing beyond the GOP base would ask, for instance, blacks how their fealty to the Democratic Party (in, for instance, Milwaukee) has served them over the past few decades. (Where is the crime rate the worst and growing? Inner cities.) It is quite racist to suggest that racial minorities must vote for only Democrats and dare not think for themselves.

I did ask a black Republican about this, and his response was:

Winning an election to gain nothing conservative is not a good strategy.
I assume that refers to voting laws and Medicaid.
I suspect Bacon’s suggestions may not get much attention in the 2024 presidential election, since the GOP is still in the Trump thrall. But if Biden or Harris win the 2024 election … election losses force focus.

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