The fight over the Confederate flag and the Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage all send the signal that Republicans need to adapt to keep pace with younger voters.
The momentous events of the last week can be interpreted in numerous ways. But one thing has become increasingly clear: The Republican Party needs to change.
One of the key organizing principles—an obsession, even—of Republicans in recent years has been their vehement opposition to the Affordable Care Act. This has been the centerpiece of Republican rhetoric and a focus of the party's legislative agenda, with the House of Representatives having voted something like 60 times to repeal or defund all or parts of the law. Obamacare will long be in the GOP stable of examples of what they say are President Obama's and congressional Democrats' extreme policies, but with the Supreme Court's King v. Burwell decision, their focus will need to shift to something else now.
Though Obamacare has been a divisive subject, it is the controversy over the Confederate battle flag and the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision on gay marriage that bring to sharp focus the cultural and generational disconnect between the Republican Party's conservative base and the direction of the country as a whole.
In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina church and the resulting focus on the Confederate flag, with the notable exception of Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and to a lesser extent, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the GOP contenders initially avoided taking a firm stand on the flag. That is fine with many in their base but not with moderate and/or independent swing voters, or for that matter, many Republicans. And the gay-marriage decision again put GOP presidential contenders in a position of choosing between their base and being on the wrong side of history—with all but a couple choosing the latter.
Simply put, Republicans are loaded up in a car, racing toward a generational cliff with their eyes focused on the rearview mirror, with many (but notably not all) oblivious to the societal changes taking place all around them and the growing wedge building between their comfort zone and presidential swing voters.
For me as a white Southerner, born in Louisiana and spending my first 18 years there, the Confederate flag is a complicated issue. I spent much of my childhood wearing a Confederate uniform with a Johnny Reb cap (with the battle flag on the front) and carrying a toy replica of a Civil War rifle, crawling across my backyard in a make-believe battle. From roughly age 7 to 12, I can remember my hometown newspaper, the Shreveport Times, carrying, often on the front page, an "On this day in…" feature with whatever notable Civil War events occurred exactly 100 years before. I can recall seeing the death notices of some of the last of the Confederate soldiers; generally they had been the young drummers of their hometown units. In the 1960s, the Confederate battle flag represented our heritage and our ancestors—and yes, both my wife and I had relatives who fought in the Confederate Army (though none to our knowledge owned, or could have afforded to own, slaves).
But over time, the balance has shifted. That flag has come to represent something different, something that should, as Bush pushed for while he was governor of Florida, move off the flagpoles and into the museums, out of respect for Americans, many of whom are the descendants of slaves, who are just as much citizens as we are. The symbolism shifted from heritage to hate; rather than paying homage to history, the flag came to make the South a prisoner of its history. It is time for the South and conservatives in the region to move on, and allow the Republican Party to move on as well, not hold it prisoner.
For those upset over the gay-marriage decision, their views were the majority opinion in this country and carried the weight of law for a long time, just as bans on interracial marriage and adoption once were too. Giving women the right to vote once seemed heretical to many. But society moves on. Change is often difficult to accept initially, but it is inevitable. I wrote about my own evolution on this issue in January of last year; my journey probably wasn't that different from that of many other people and from what, I suspect, many of the current opponents will eventually have. But politically speaking, all Republicans have to do is to take a peek into the future, look at the polls, at public attitudes of Americans—including conservatives—under 40 and particularly under 30 years of age. There are fights worth fighting, but this one, like the one over the Confederate battle flag, is futile and will only contribute to the perception of a Republican Party with anachronistic views of our society.
Another interpretation of the events of last week, though some in the GOP and in the conservative movement will be reluctant to see and accept this, is that these developments were a good thing for the Republican Party. While midterm elections are usually about the past—referenda on the last two or six years—presidential elections are generally forward-oriented, about the future. Just as generals are often said to want to fight the last war, some in politics instinctively seem to want to debate the last debate. The 2016 election will be about the next eight years, not the last. Additionally, the last thing that Republicans should want to deal with going into 2016 is more than 6 million Americans in states with no exchanges suddenly losing their health insurance subsidies and many effectively losing their health care coverage. Privately, many Republican elected officials and strategists had been very worried about this and are relieved that the threat has passed.
One can believe that the Affordable Care Act was hurriedly pushed through at the wrong time, during the depths of the Great Recession, when the focus should have been on job creation. One can believe that while it was well-intentioned, it was a deeply flawed approach. But it is, now and for the foreseeable future, the law, and rather than fighting over the past, both parties should now be focused on making it work, on reaching compromises to address its shortcomings.
Republicans need to do some soul-searching about their future and their relationships with voters of generations to come. Vibrant parties change with the times, adapt themselves to changing conditions and circumstances. Maybe this past week will help the GOP do this.