The Republican party seems to have shot itself in the foot this time in at least two ways. The big one was positioning itself as more anti-immigrant than the Democrats, pushing the Hispanic vote, which on other grounds ought to be largely Republican, over to the other side. One of the few things that Bush got right in my view, at least more nearly right than the rest of his party, was immigration.
The other mistake was having two senatorial candidates sufficiently inexperienced, or poorly advised, or insensitive to connotations of language, to make statements that could be viewed as condoning rape.
Quite a lot of people would put the matter more strongly than that, but I think they are mistaken. If you actually look at what Todd Akin said, it demonstrated nothing worse than ignorance of human biology. And there was a reason for the mistake—arguably a creditable reason. Akin was both a committed opponent of abortion and a sufficiently decent human being to be unhappy with the idea of a woman having to bear a child conceived by rape. He solved the problem by believing the claim, apparently originated by a physician on his side of the abortion controversy, that a woman who was raped would not get pregnant. The belief is false, but not entirely absurd—I gather that a pregnant rabbit can, under some circumstances, reabsorb the fetuses. And it is a very convenient belief for someone in Akin's position.
There is no good reason to expect senatorial candidates to know much about biology. And the pattern of imagining away conflicts between the policies you support and the consequences you want is hardly unique to him. Think of all the people who claim, and presumably believe, that cap and trade or subsidies to renewable energy will not only reduce CO2 output but create jobs and save money, or the supporters of farm bills who like to believe that they help not only the farmers but the rest of us as well.
Akin's other mistake was the term "legitimate rape." It was easy to interpret that as implying that some rape is legitimate—acceptable. But it was clear in context that what he meant was rape that is really rape, rather than consensual sex mislabeled rape; it was not the act he was describing as legitimate but the label.
There is quite a lot of "rape" that in that sense is not legitimate—when a seventeen year old sleeps with his fifteen year old girlfriend, for instance, in a state that classifies that act as statutory rape. His mistake was failing to filter out of his response to a question words that could readily be misinterpreted—and, predictably, would be.
Richard Mourdock, the other senator who got caught up in the rape controversy, was not even guilty of a mistake, unless one is willing to classify religion as a mistake—a defensible position, but not one that many in politics are willing to take. For those who believe in an omnipotent God, there is an obvious problem—how to explain bad things happening. The simplest solution, although not the only possible one, is to believe that even bad things are somehow part of God's plan. It was for saying that, in the emotionally loaded context of rape, that Mourdock got in political trouble.
Aside from those two errors and some mess ups in the mechanics of getting out the vote, it is not clear to me what the Republicans got wrong or why they lost. There are a variety of issues on which they could and, in my view, should have taken a different position, such as foreign policy, military expenditure, or the war on drugs. But I have no particular opinion as to whether doing so would have gained votes or lost them.
Which long prelude leads into the real subject of this essay—the future of the Republican party. Currently it is an alliance of several quite different factions, united mostly by the desire to elect candidates. It is possible that that situation will continue—but less likely as a result of the recent defeat in the presidential election. If not, there will either be a civil war within the party, with different factions trying to take over, or a new compromise, probably brokered by the professionals at the top and sold to as much of the existing membership as possible.
What are the factions, what policies are important to them, where are there irresolvable conflicts?
The faction I am closest to is the libertarian faction identified with Ron Paul. Its policies include opposition to aggressive foreign policy and the resulting wars, support for ending or at least scaling back the war on drugs, and support for actual reductions in federal spending—as opposed to the reductions in the rate of growth of spending which are what everyone else means by spending cuts. Insofar as it has a view on issues such as gay marriage or abortion it tends to be the opposite of the current position of the Republican party, although those issues did not play a large role in Ron Paul's campaign for the nomination. He himself is anti-abortion, although he mostly qualified that view by arguing that the question should be dealt with at the state rather than the federal level.
A faction close to that one but not identical is the Tea Party. Its central policy is holding down government spending and the deficit. Membership appears to include both libertarians and social conservatives.
The social conservatives are a third faction, and the one that ended up playing a dominant role in the primary campaign—with the result that the winner of that campaign had to rapidly reverse course once he was nominated, in order to get closer to the political center. Social conservatives have no particular reason to be for or against an aggressive foreign policy, are likely but not certain to support the war on drugs, are hostile to abortion and to gay marriage—although one might argue that their support for marriage ought to outweigh their disapproval of homosexuality. Their ideology has no obvious implications for the level of federal spending, so long as the money isn't spent on things they disapprove of.
The fourth faction is the neo-conservatives. My guess is that they are the smallest of the four judged by numbers but play a major role in the party leadership. They are strongly in favor of an aggressive foreign policy and war when necessary to implement it. They are, as a result, hostile to cuts in defense spending, and so less likely to support reductions in overall spending than any of the other three groups, especially the first two.
If this rough typology of the factions is correct, what plausible coalitions might form over the next few years?
The easy one is a coalition of the libertarians and the tea party, since both agree on the central policy of the latter, reducing government spending and the deficit, and the tea party has no policy on other issues the libertarians care about. One way of reducing government spending is by a less aggressive foreign policy, requiring a smaller military, so Tea Party Republicans ought to be at least somewhat sympathetic to the libertarian position on foreign policy.
A coalition of social conservatives and neo-conservatives is less plausible, since they have nothing much in common, but at least there are no major issues on which their positions are directly opposed. Much the same is true for a coalition of social conservatives and the Tea Party.
I think that exhausts the possibilities for coalitions without serious internal conflicts. Neo-conservative support for a strong military and the foreign policy that requires it is directly contrary to the position of the libertarians and at least partly in conflict with the Tea Party, since expanding one major part of the budget makes it harder to reduce the total. Social conservative opposition to legal abortion and gay marriage conflicts with libertarian views on those issues, and social conservatives are unlikely to support libertarian calls for legalizing (at least) marijuana.
One possibility is for the party to split—but it is hard to see how any of the two-faction coalitions I have described could get enough votes to win a national election, unless it could somehow pull a substantial number of voters out of the democratic coalition. A Tea Party/Libertarian coalition could conceivably attract voters in favor of legalized marijuana, a position favored by a substantial number of Democrats, but I doubt that would be sufficient. Adding support for some way of making illegal immigrants legal might do it—but might also drive out some of the Tea Party faction. A coalition of neo-conservatives and social conservatives looks even less hopeful, at least as long as the Democrats continue to support an aggressive foreign policy.
The closest to a workable restructuring of the party I can come up with would be one that dropped the neo-conservatives, probably the smallest faction, downplayed the conflicts between libertarians and social conservatives, and emphasized spending reduction and associated shifts in foreign policy.
One alternative, given the American political system, is a national coalition of regional parties sharing a common name and not much else. That, after all, is what the Democratic party was for a long time. But I still find it hard to see what, beyond the desire to elect a president, the neoconservatives would have in common with the other three factions sufficient to make the alliance worth the while of either side. And it is hard to imagine a presidential candidate who would appeal to both anti-war libertarians and neo-conservatives.
Another alternative is for one coalition to control the party and hope that the others will stay in despite not being given much beyond crumbs. That is what happened this time, with neo-conservatives and social conservatives getting their preferred policy positions and conceding to the other two nothing much beyond the promise to increase federal spending a little more slowly than the Democrats. If the efforts of the Ron Paul people to take over state party organizations turn out to have succeeded, we might get a rerun of that with the roles reversed. I am not sure what reason neo-conservatives would have to stay in a party dominated by libertarians and the Tea Party, given the alternative of supporting a Democratic party with an aggressive foreign policy, but at least the social conservatives, having nowhere better to go, might remain out of inertia. And some of the anti-war left might finally let the reality of the current administration's policy overcome their ideological distaste for Republicans.
The most interesting alternative would be some restructuring that tore both parties apart, forming new coalitions out of the pieces. Foreign policy is one issue that could do that, drug policy another. No others occur to me, but perhaps readers can offer suggestions.
P.S. (added later) It occurs to me that I ought to tie the end of this essay back to the beginning. Both of the problems I listed come from the social conservative faction—at least, I cannot think of any reason why the other three should be especially hostile to immigration. On the other hand, reducing the coalition to two factions doesn't look like a viable strategy. Perhaps the best option is to point out to the social conservatives that Mexican immigrants are rather more religious and more socially conservative than the current population, so should be welcomed—and persuade them to be more careful about how they defend their position on abortion.