A recent New York Times Magazine cover story by Robert Draper asked the question, "Can young Republican dissidents rise up and drag their party into the 21st century?" Draper didn't answer the question directly, so I will. The answer is yes.
Draper emphasizes the technological disadvantage facing the Republican Party. On everything from online ads to voter profiling to the use of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, the Democrats are miles ahead. The piece focuses on the 20- and 30-something high-tech types who are trying to fix Republican strategies and tactics that led to the party's losing the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. While improved digital tools and online advertising are important, here's where the real answer lies: Draper says that virtually every young Republican he spoke with identified themselves as "a socially tolerant, limited-government fiscal conservative."
Being a socially tolerant, limited government fiscal conservative is how many young people describe themselves—whether they identify as being Republicans or not. Some are more supportive of an activist government than others, but many are alarmed at the perfect storm awaiting their generation: rising debt, higher taxes, and a tough job market. And many share the desire to be tolerant of others and to avoid being narrow minded socially. While young people voted for Obama overall, his margin of winning the group dropped from a 34-point lead in 2008 to a 22-point margin in 2012, according to exit polls.
Obama may have an advantage now among young voters based on his social agenda, but his big-spending, big-taxing, high-debt economic policies will eventually be the undoing of the Democratic Party's support among young people. In the 2012 race, the president took great advantage of the extremist views expressed on abortion by Republicans like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, but in the long run, the Democrats have a problem.
That's because not all Republicans are social conservatives. Polling last year by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation showed a five-way split among Republican voters. Currently, about 28 percent of Republicans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters—fiscal conservatives opposed to gay marriage as well as abortion in all or most cases—which is the focus of a lot of attention among the chattering class. But here's what nobody's talking about: the other 72 percent of Republicans who are not Tea Partyers.
In Kaiser's polling, the most interesting overlap inside the GOP was between "Old-School Republicans" and "Window Shoppers." Old Schoolers are older, more white and male, and want a smaller government; Window Shoppers are younger, female, and more diverse and want a more activist government. Both groups are more socially tolerant than Tea Partyers and combined, make up a bigger chunk (39 percent) of the GOP than the Tea Party.
Being socially tolerant and fiscally conservative has long been the secret sauce of the GOP. What's new is that many people who agree with that philosophy don't necessarily identify as Republicans. It wasn't always that way.
One of the fathers of both Reagan-era tax reform and urban enterprise zones, Jack Kemp, called himself a "bleeding-heart conservative," a nickname that more Republicans should consider using these days. James A. Baker III has argued for principled, bipartisan measures to reduce gun violence. Probably the most Old School of Old Schoolers, Dick Cheney, made headlines when he came out for same-sex marriage in 2004. He also said states should decide the definition of marriage, not the federal government. That's a limited-government, socially tolerant position on gay rights. Plus he's right—freedom means freedom for everyone.
When it comes to abortion, the Republican platform has been pro-life without exceptions for rape or incest since Ronald Reagan's day. But in 1992, George H.W. Bush announced that contrary to the party platform, he was pro-life with exceptions—a position that was adopted by Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, John McCain in 2008, and for the most part, Mitt Romney in 2012. While the left likes to point out the "extremism" of the pro-life GOP platform, recent Republican presidential candidates have stood with mainstream voters: they were pro-life with exceptions for rape and incest.