Debate Club

Republicans Need to Find Their Bill Clinton

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Although few doubt that more inclusive policies on immigration and poverty would likely help the Republican Party attract more voters, the GOP's problems stem more from its recent history than its ideological positioning. What it needs now are not necessarily new policies, but new faces to promote conservative principles and upset the older symbolic associations held by many voters about the GOP. In other words, the Republicans need to find their own Bill Clinton who in 1992 not only became the dynamic face of the "New Democrats," but also, as an "up by his bootstraps" Southern governor, was able to shatter the "tax and spend northern liberal elitist" image of the party, which had taken hold after Mondale's and Dukakis's presidential losses.

Simply put, American politicians help make their party brands and the Republicans have had too many high-profile embarrassments of late.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

From Tea Party Senate candidates Todd Akin and Sharron Angle to presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, the GOP has seemed to be the party of erratic and risky politicians. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—both of whom are popular among Republicans—carry this mantle of volatility. When Republicans haven't been seen as "wild-eyed populists," they've been viewed as the flip side of that coin: rich "out-of-touch" capitalists. From Senate candidates Carly Fiorina and Linda McMahon to presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Republicans have had a difficult time convincing Americans that they can relate to their economic concerns.

The GOP has been plagued by either too much or not enough authenticity. But there's a bigger issue weighing down the Republican Party than these recent—and notably losing—candidates.

While many Republicans are loath to admit this, the party has not yet recovered from George W. Bush's second term. Not only was Bush the most polarizing president up until Barack Obama, but the economic meltdown that happened on his watch traumatized most Americans. They're just not yet ready to entrust the nation's helm to the party that seemed to call forth the storm. To restore the GOP's former luster, the party needs to face facts.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

First, Bush left office with an abysmal second term approval rating, clocking in near Truman and Nixon. Second, the congressional scandals that rocked the Capitol prior to the 2006 election (i.e., lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his dealings with Reps. Tom Delay and Bob Ney to Rep. Mark Foley's shocking texts to congressional pages) made it tough for many voters to believe that the Republicans cared about moral character and family values. Third, the spending increases (e.g., Medicare prescription drug coverage) and the initiation of two wars further made it difficult to conceive of the GOP as the party of "small government." Power seemed paramount.

Will Republicans get past these negative associations? Yes. Time is on their side. But in the interim, the GOP should actively promote the party's rising stars. Whether Sens. Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte, Ted Cruz, and Tim Scott or Govs. Nikki Haley, Mary Fallin, Susana Martinez, and Bobby Jindal, they should start speaking for the party. Republicans need to make their message: "out with the old and in with the new." The only thing really holding the GOP back is its nostalgia.

Lara Brown

About Lara Brown Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University

Romney, Mitt
Akin, Todd
Fallin, Mary
Clinton, Bill
Democratic Party
Cain, Herman
Santorum, Rick
Republican Party

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