Losing with the Southern strategy

There was a time – seemingly in a political galaxy far, far away – when Democrats dreaded, on presidential election nights, the returns from California. It could be close, as in 1968, 1976 and 1988, but you could usually make book on the GOP carrying the Golden State. However, 1988 represented the last time Republicans carried California.

And this is not the only state. In 1988, Washington and Oregon were added to the list of Democratic perennials. Illinois followed in 1992 and has never returned to the Republican column. It is instructive to remember that save Texas and Hawaii, Jimmy Carter did not take a single Western state in 1976. George W. Bush, in 2004, limited Democratic gains to the Pacific Coast, but since 2008, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico have belonged to the Democrats.

For Republicans who claim that they can win the country simply by standing pat, the geography is daunting. They are being gradually pushed to the South and Plains States. The recent Republican National Committee autopsy criticizes the harping on social issues and the limited message. This is not a formula to de-conservatize the party but to make it smarter. It is in the spirit of one of the greatest GOP chairman of all time, Ray Bliss – “Old Nuts and Bolts” – who reorganized the party after the debacle of 1964.

The GOP comeback was steady and stealthy, few ideological missives and more broadening of the message. Bliss helped lift Richard Nixon to victory in 1968 and poised the party to be, in Kevin Phillips’ words, “the emerging Republican majority.” Had it not been for Watergate and Nixon’s foolish decision to dump Bliss, the 1970s may have been known as the triumph of 1950s Chairman Meade Alcorn’s “modern Republicanism..”

Ronald Reagan’s triumphs in the 1980s put the GOP on a “slightly to the right” course. George W. Bush managed to attract Hispanic votes, just enough to help in his victories. Certainly Mitt Romney’s campaign attempts to pander to the far right did not pay off. For example, Colorado, which never was a Democratic state, went for Barack Obama in 2009, Michael Bennett for Senate in 2010 and Obama in 2012. Like California, it is being permanently lost and largely because of the GOP stances on social issues and immigration.

How a good slice of the West was lost to the GOP had little to do with the “47 percent.” Many voters who were lost were Eastern professionals moving to Denver or Santa Fe. Their interests are primarily environmental politics and social issues. Given their economic status, many should be attracted to Republican positions, but alas they vote with Democrats. If the GOP stuck with an economic message and soft-pedalled the rest, they would at least reduce the suburban margins.

It is one thing to be conservative and another thing to be reactionary, or as Milton Friedman stated describing Reagan, “he is principled which you want, he is not rigidly principled which you don’t want.” Playing smart is not something to denigrate, but rather to celebrate. Had Democrats not heeded the Democratic leadership council’s advice to de-emphasize liberal populism, Bill Clinton would not have won.

Democrats, in the last 50 years, abandoned the Southern conservatives and the last remnant of blue-collar urban machines. Republicans now are stuck with the leavings of the Democratic Party.

Southern conservatism is of a very different variety from libertarianism. It is a traditionally based right that offers the GOP the pledge that they will go down swinging. The Republican Party would be best to try and win back the states it has lost than continue the Southern strategy.