Searching for a GOP Savior

by David Gastwirth

This week’s Road to the White House – entitled “How the Millennial Generation is Shaping the 2012 Election” – featured Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, co-authors of Millennial Momentum: How a new generation is remaking America (2011: Rutgers University Press).  The discussion focused on the important role that Millennials – Americans born roughly from the early 1980s to the early 2000s – can and will play in American politics.  Some of the most convincing findings came from survey data about the policy preferences of this age cohort.  On nearly every issue – foreign policy, economic policy, and social policy – the views of the Millennials are closely aligned with the dominant positions of the Democrat Party.

Some of these beliefs – such as strong support for government action on matters ranging from the status of minorities to support for failing businesses – stand in stark contrast to core principles of the contemporary GOP. And the laws of biology do not bode well for the GOP, as 53% of their party is comprised of Americans in the two oldest generational cohorts (as compared to 57% of Democrats being in their 20s, 30s, and 40s).  Winograd and Hais made a point to debunk the myth that Americans become more conservative – and thus more like to side with the GOP – as they age.  Partisan preferences are formed early on, and research shows that most Americans do not significantly gravitate from their early positions.

So what is the GOP to do?  Some believe that Millennial support for Barack Obama has been so strong because he conveys a young and hip image that appeals to the Millennial sensibilities – even if he is not a Millennial himself.  If the GOP could just find a candidate – or set of political figures – that has the right persona … maybe that could fix the problem.  The GOP has certainly tried to convey a more youthful image and appeal to a younger crowd in recent years.  Both Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan are markedly younger than their running mates – a fact that was certainly not overlooked by pundits and party spokespeople.  Both Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal, neither young enough to be considered Millennials, were thrust into the national spotlight in large part because they were perceived to be well-aligned with features that should appeal to Millennials – a combination of diversity and youth.  But alas, the strategy of trying to match Obama with their own Obama-like figure – based on compatibility and appeal of more demographic and less policy-focused features – has not proven successful.   Winograd and Hais, based on arguments presented in their book, would counter that each generation is distinct, and Millennials are not more likely to associate with political figures from a more proximate generation.  In fact, Millennials might share the most in common with the civic generation that preceded them– the “Greatest Generation” which includes the likes of John F. Kennedy, Jr., Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.

The Millennials support President Obama because of his persona and his policy views.  The GOP can search long and hard for an Obama-like figure based on persona, but such efforts will be futile if they cannot identify a candidate that also brings with him/her a set of policy positions that fit – at least in part – with the Millennial political ideology and policy views.  When it comes to policy positions, the GOP diverges from the majority sentiments of Millennials on a host of issues – and it does not appear as though the divide is getting any closer.  The candidate that showed the highest degree of moderation on key issues of concern to Millennials – especially immigration – was Jon Huntsman.  Yet he fared poorly in the primaries and never came into favor with the national party.

Immigration is a critical issue because it goes beyond policy preferences to include the core definition of membership in the American enterprise.  By taking a hard line on immigration, the GOP is alienating those with divergent policy positions and those with strong immigrant identities.  With the growing proportion and prominence of Latinos in this country, and especially amongst Millennials, immigration is arguably the GOP’s last best hope to steer a brighter course.  Jon Huntsman, in a Wall Street Journal article published right before the GOP Convention, said the following:

For far too long we as a nation have tolerated an ugly nativist strain that dresses itself up with legitimate concerns about security and the breakdown of the rule of law. This is nothing new. It wasn’t long ago that “Irish need not apply” signs dotted Boston, and laws in some places banned speaking German. But we would be fools not to learn from our history, since our competitors—like Singapore, which is working to attract immigrants—surely are.

Jon Hunstman inA GOP Opportunity on Immigration Wall Street Journal Aug 26, 2012

Huntsman does a masterful job of making the case for a more inclusive immigration position within the frame of the dominant campaign narrative –economic renewal – that the GOP has constructed.   As Huntsman later notes, “Republican leaders at the Tampa convention have a real opening through the platform committee to project immigration reform as central to a 21st century economic vision. This isn’t just good policy. It’s also good politics.”  While it may be overly naive to believe that the GOP will shift policy positions on issues such as same-sex marriage and social welfare spending, immigration reform is one particular issue that could help bridge the divide between Millennial voters and the GOP.  Winograd and Hais suggest that the GOP must construct a “civic ethos” that defines that appropriate size and scope of government.  As a nation, and even more importantly a generation, of immigrants, nothing is more critical to the future of the GOP than building a “civic ethos” that proclaims immigrants and immigration as part of the solution – not the problem to be solved.  Rather than searching for a young, charismatic candidate from a minority group, the GOP should think carefully about how giving an inch on one specific policy issue may shape their capacity to impact public policy across the board for decades to come.