The week after the election, Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land told a conference hosted by GOPAC, “The Republican Party of the future must reach beyond its traditional base. In other words, we need to get back to the old Reagan idea of our party as a ‘big tent.’ We might not agree with each other, but we should still have a place for anyone who wants to join us.” A few Republicans have voiced this opinion in the election aftermath. There needs to be more.
Land’s comments are especially telling because she hails from Michigan, ground zero for the recent national debate on rescuing or “bailing out” domestic automakers. In the end, the Bush Administration announced $17.4 billion in short-term loans from the remaining funds of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the financial bailout funds, but not before Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a congressional solution with the threat of a filibuster. The consequence? In Michigan and other Rust Belt states, the Republican brand is universally derided not just by Democrats and unions, but also by fellow Republicans who feel betrayed, abandoned, and can no longer stomach being part of the party.
Recently—and easily forgotten—Michigan was seen as Sen. John McCain’s best chance for picking-up a blue state. President-elect Obama’s weak showing in Rust Belt primaries like Ohio and Pennsylvania heralded potential for Republican gains. These are states that don’t usually connect to your typical intellectual, urban, liberal nor’easter.
So after the economy falters and credit freezes up, who does Congress eventually vote to save? Those urban northeasterners on Wall Street. And when Republicans get the opportunity to block straight loans, not dollars to purchase assets, who do they neglect? Domestic manufacturers, and with them, the men and women who are actually getting their hands dirty in plants just to put bread on the table for their families—not going on polo retreats in England.
In these parts of the country, the unemployment rate already threatens to break 10 percent, and hundreds of thousands of local jobs are directly tied to the automotive industry. Without it, there’s nothing—a widespread view across much of Michigan. But when automakers asked Republicans for help, GOP senators turned around and spit in the Rust Belt’s eye.
When it comes to rebuilding the Republican Party, one of the most popular arguments is the need to get back to conservative principles. There are plenty of conservative arguments for supporting domestic automakers. First, while outsourcing may help the national economy, it may also make economic sense to outsource our entire manufacturing sector because it isn’t competitive enough. But without a manufacturing capacity, what would that mean for national security?
During World War II, Detroit was the Arsenal of Democracy, the leader in producing the supplies we needed to win the war. Surely national security remains a core tenet of conservative principles. And when critics balk at Chamber of Commerce estimates that as many as 5 million jobs are indirectly tied to domestic automakers because so many other industries have indirect ties across sectors, it’s hard to see how other industries potentially asking for bailouts can benefit national security.
Further, an argument can be made that if the government doesn’t give automakers a bridge loan, it’ll end up paying their workers’ welfare costs anyway, sending the bill to taxpayers one way or another, not to mention that job losses mean less consumer spending. It doesn’t feel like going out on a limb to say that conservatives would prefer to see people working and spending than relying on their unemployment insurance.
But when Republicans had an opportunity to cast an inclusive vote, they voted against a bridge loan for domestic automakers, just like when they had the chance to cast another inclusive vote on immigration reform. President Bush’s push for comprehensive immigration reform could be seen as wholly consistent with his platform of “compassionate conservatism” from when he ran for president in 2000. With that compassion, the President’s initiatives could have expanded the Republican Party’s tent to include new, important constituencies. Yet when given the chance, congressional Republicans shut down comprehensive reform, opting for stricter and greater enforcements at the border, and in the next election, Latino voters, the nation’s fastest growing demographic, decisively cast their ballots for the Democrat.
With the Big Three bailout, Republicans had another opportunity to expand their tent—this time to labor, blue-collar workers, and the Rust Belt. With 2008, Republicans may have lost states like Colorado and Virginia for the foreseeable future, and southwestern states like Nevada, New Mexico, and even Arizona may end up more competitive than Republicans would like. The GOP needs new states where they can go on the offense. Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, perhaps extending to Wisconsin and Minnesota, are prime territory.
The party’s reactionary tendency raises an important question: how can Republicans win another election by relying on an ever-shrinking base? At what point will Republicans actually make an effort to reach out to new constituencies? And who will actually be left for Republicans to reach out to?