In many respects, Republican losses in 2012 were worse than the Democrats' in 2010. Though the absolute numbers and turnover ratio were greater in 2010, 2012 obviously featured a presidential race, which many in GOP inner circles thought securely favored their candidate, slipping away to a hated yet persistently powerful incumbent.
November 6 was a rude awakening indeed.
After major media outlets called the election for President Barack Obama, pundits and politicians alike were already rationalizing and strategizing ... those who accepted defeat, anways. While many prominent conservatives admitted the future of the GOP requires significant soul-searching, there were nevertheless many strident repudiators hearkening back to the same Republican refrains.
If the GOP hopes to avoid the fate of the Federalists and Whigs, it needs to fundamentally change, from policies to packaging. The three days since the election have offered numerous specific policy areas the GOP can improve, and many of these arguments are convincing. Yet these arguments still miss a critical truth: the soul-searching cannot occur in a vacuum; it must be guided and largely shaped by not just party luminaries but by its actual thinkers and leaders.
The inevitable conversation must necessarily be inclusive — it's one of the areas the GOP must work on, after all — but it will nevertheless require steady guiding leadership, leadership that recognizes the party's strengths and weaknesses and is equipped to moderate the different and oftentimes clashing wings of the Republican party. The GOP's top political figureheads, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, must take it upon themselves to begin this important new conversation.
Since Mitt Romney's political career is effectively crushed, many in the House will be looking to Romney's running mate Paul Ryan, already considered an intellectual force within the party. Working in concert with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and, if possible, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Ryan must exert control over the renegade Tea Party faction, whose ideological purity and rabid intransigence effectively derailed the Obama/Boehner grand bargain in 2011. Despite losing this week, Ryan retains enormous clout and has a bright political future. He would be well advised to begin the process of internal change in the House on such matters as tax policy and spending, particularly given the impending fiscal cliff negotiations.
Just as Ryan must assert his influence in the House, Rubio must be the voice of Republican change in the Senate. Given his heritage, Rubio could work potential wonders for the GOP on such matters as immigration. Rubio must be willing to challenge the patricial Senate leadership of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), widely viewed as the embodiment of Republican obstructionism. Challenging McConnell may be easier considering his chief lieutenant, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is retiring.
Christie was widely criticized by members of his own party for praising President Obama's handling of Hurricane Sandy, but he shot back at his naysayers in his patented style. Moderate on some issues, conservative on others, and altogether a strong player in his party, Christie has the opportunity to affect nation-wide change. Using his governorship as a soap box is a good start, but ultimately voters may respond most to more across-the-aisle overtures in the same vein as his partnership with the president during his state's worst environmental disaster.
This is the third piece in my five-part series 2012 Election Reflections. My second piece is "6 Simple Reasons Why Barack Obama Won and Mitt Romney Lost." And my first piece is "When This is All Over, Everyone Should Make a Concerted Effort to Return to Civility."