In particular, the GOP’s heavy losses amongst minority groups – African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos – has prompted the party to try to broaden its appeal to take account of America’s changing demographics. Its poor performance with the Latino population has informed the Republican leadership’s decision to support a comprehensive immigration reform bill (co-sponsored by the Florida senator and widely tipped 2016 Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio). Barack Obama’s capture of 71 percent of the Latino vote was widely attributed to harsh rhetoric against illegal immigrants during the Republican primaries, including Mitt Romney’s promise to make them self-deport. The Republican establishment believes, therefore, that immigration reform is the gateway issue to begin a conversation with Latinos and other minority groups. Be more welcoming to immigrant communities, the argument goes, and these groups will become natural followers of the GOP’s message of limited government. The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, argues that Latinos are naturally socially conservative and favour smaller government.
However, the evidence suggests that the Republican Party’s fundamental problem is its political philosophy. The GOP’s strident anti-government message does not appeal to the constituencies which it needs to win presidential elections.
Since the era of Ronald Reagan (with the exception of George W. Bush’s generally unsuccessful attempt to re-cast the GOP as the party of ‘compassionate conservatism’), a belief in limited government has formed the cornerstone of the Republican Party’s philosophy. When Reagan came to power, the top tax rate in the US was 70 percent and the high inflation of the 1970s ensured that many Americans quickly moved up the tax brackets. Therefore, Reagan’s statement in his 1981 inaugural address that ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’ resonated strongly. Three decades later and despite changed circumstances, the GOP’s limited government philosophy has morphed into a simplistic anti-government message.
The central theme of last year’s Republican convention was, ‘We built it’. This was a rebuke to comments by Obama that successful entrepreneurs were not solely responsible for their achievements but also benefited from government investments in areas like education and transport. Kentucky senator and Tea Party favourite Rand Paul told delegates: ‘I was saddened that … the President of the United States believes that roads create business success and not the other way round.’
In response to Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year, Rubio said: ‘More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them.’
Yet, this thinking is precisely the reason why core constituencies which the GOP needs to win are turning their backs on it.
First, consider Latinos. Their rationale for voting Democrat runs deeper than Republican intransigence on immigration. Obama’s Affordable Care Act is popular with Latinos as roughly 30 percent of this demographic lack health insurance. After the economy,healthcare was the second most important issue for Latino voters in 2012. Repealing Obamacare has been a signature Republican policy but the GOP has not offered its own credible solution on healthcare.
Second, Asian Americans are widely identified as a natural Republican constituency given that they are – in the words of American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray – ‘entrepreneurial, industrious, family-orientated and self-reliant.’ Yet this demographic broke even more strongly for Obama (73 percent) than Latinos did. Unlike today’s Republicans, the Asian American community does not view being pro-business and pro-government as mutually exclusive. A Pew Research Centre report from last year found that 55 percent of Asian Americans favour a bigger government providing more services to a smaller government providing fewer ones. In terms of educational attainment, 49 percent of Asian Americans have at least a college degree (this figure rises to 70 percent amongst Indian Americans) compared to 28 percent of the overall US population. Therefore, access to good schooling is a priority for this group. In the words of the BBC’s Justin Webb, Asian Americans want the government to support the ‘infrastructure of modernity – the laying of cable, the harvesting of data and the training of minds’.
Third, white working class Americans – often former Reagan Democrats – are increasingly moving away from the Republican core message. In Ohio, the critical swing state in the Rust Belt with a large number of blue collar workers, just under 60 percent of voters favoured raising taxes on high income earners – a direct rebuke to the GOP’s argument that cutting tax rates at the top benefits everyone. Only one quarter of Ohioans thoughts that Obamacare should be completely repealed. The Obama administration’s financial support for the auto industry, a key employer in Ohio, contributed strongly to his victory there. Romney, by contrast, had argued against this bailout.
Therefore, the Republican Party needs to talk less about getting government out of the way and more about how it can work better in empowering individuals and communities. In accordance with its conservative principles, it can talk about government promoting access to opportunity through education and entrepreneurialism and working more efficiently and effectively to help those who need it.
And it should remember another passage from Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address on precisely this theme: ‘It’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work … Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it’.