Republicans need to learn to understand the struggles faced by younger American generations and show that they have the answers.
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The result of the 2016 presidential election shook the world. Donald Trump, a businessman with no previous political experience, was elected to the most powerful position on the planet. Trump spent a large portion of his campaign disparaging anyone he viewed as an opponent. The presidency would force him to find a way to unite Americans, even those he had estranged. His largest political challenge would be uniting the Republican establishment, much of which he had alienated, behind his agenda.
Trump’s victory was meant to herald the start of a new era for the Republican party. Party orthodoxy meant little to the temperamental political novice. He railed against free trade, abandoned traditional political rhetoric, and aggressively attacked Republicans for their perceived inaction on the issue of illegal immigration.
While Trump was not the ideal presidential candidate, Republicans hoped that his unabashed aggression and their new majority in all three houses of government, which they have not possessed since 1928, would aid the party. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan spoke for many when he said that the conflicts between Trump and the Republican party were “over and done with” and that the party was ready to work with the newly elected president.
Yet, as the cliché goes, expectations are a far cry from reality. In 2017, the Republican party has floundered. It has flattered to deceive, failing to make good on its promise to reform healthcare, losing a senate seat in Alabama due to its decision to run Roy Moore as a candidate, and finding itself mired in petty scandals and the shadow of the Russia investigation. The attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare was an enormous letdown to the party’s base and a failure of leadership. It was not only poorly planned, but poorly executed, perhaps epitomizing the GOP’s year.
Attempting to push through legislation, which according to a Quinnipiac University poll had a 20 percent approval rating, was never going to go well. But the way the bill met its fate was even more damaging. The bitter debate that occurred between conservative and moderate Republicans exposed ideological chasms between center and hard right factions within the party. The bill being defeated, brought back, defeated, brought back, and dramatically defeated for the final time was politically detrimental. Politico, Quinnipiac, and the Economist conducted polls in the aftermath which found Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's approval rating in his home state of Kentucky to be as low as 15 percent, significantly lower than the 21 percent it had been at the start of the year.
An SSRS poll found that fewer than three in 10 Americans hold a favorable view of the Republican party. This number is down 13 percent from March. In fact, this is the lowest number since SSRS polling began in 1992. Even a majority of Republican voters believe that their party leaders in Congress are taking the party in the “wrong direction.” Poor messaging, failed policy proposals, and the scandal-ridden Trump administration have tarnished the Republican party’s image. It is abundantly clear that the Republican party needs to do some serious soul-searching if it is to have a political future.
The Republican party should start its reform by assessing the strength of its voter base. Despite holding the majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans lost the popular vote. President Trump also lost the popular vote by a far greater margin. Republicans won largely due to gerrymandered districts, and the fact that Democratic voters tend to live in urban areas which Democratic candidates win overwhelmingly, whereas Republican voters are more spread out. But Republicans cannot rely on creative district drawing and convenient demographics if they want to achieve any tangible legislative change. The party needs a new message that can attract alienated voters both within and outside the party.
An important demographic which Republicans should strive to integrate into the party is the millennial generation. Millennials overwhelmingly back Democratic candidates, with the Pew Research Center finding that over 54 percent of millennials are Democratic. 2016 was the first election in a long time in which Baby Boomers and older generations did not cast the majority of the vote. The millennial vote will only continue to gain importance, as its size and turnout are both projected to increase, and winning elections without millennials will only get more difficult.
To attract the millennial vote, Republicans need to rebrand their party and present themselves in a new light. Many young voters are drawn to the Democratic party by its proposals concerning economic equality and social welfare. Republicans need to respond by becoming empathetic and presenting themselves as “compassionate conservatives.” They need to show that more government is not the solution to issues such as healthcare. They need to listen to arguments about the ridiculous amount of student debt and overwhelming drug prices. They need to learn to understand the struggles faced by younger American generations and show that they, the Republican party, have the answers. By acknowledging the existence of man-made climate change, working to reduce skyrocketing tuition costs, and presenting more thoughtful anti-poverty policies, Republicans can attract the votes of millennials, poor Americans, and the highly educated, demographics which are currently overwhelmingly Democratic. Rather than molding itself in the model of the overzealous, angry, and blustery Steve Bannon, the Republican party needs to make itself more appealing to these moderate Democrats and Independents.
The tax plan that was recently passed represents a step in the right direction in terms of enacting policy that directly helps a vast majority of Americans. However, there is still plenty of work to be done if Republicans want to reform the way they are seen by the American public. As the political time bomb that is the 2018 midterms draws nearer, it is imperative that this reform begins now. It's time to change the Grand Old Party.