Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Republicans can bounce back

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:31 AM EST, Mon November 26, 2012
Republicans were able to revive their brand under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, says Julian Zelizer.
Republicans were able to revive their brand under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, says Julian Zelizer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Republicans are debating their future after a disappointing election
  • He says GOP lost many demographic groups, seems out-of-step with America
  • Zelizer: History shows it's possible to find ways to turn the party's fortunes around
  • He says GOP needs new ideas and new leadership to transform itself

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Republicans have been engaged in a lot of soul searching since the election. There are many reasons that they were not happy about the outcome of the election, but most frightening of all for the party was the fact that demographic changes and public opinion on social issues like gay marriage and abortion seem opposed to the party's stances. "I went to bed last night thinking we've lost the country," said radio host Rush Limbaugh.

To be sure, Republicans did well with large swaths of white voters and much of the map remained red. Yet Republicans clearly had trouble attracting Latinos, African Americans, Asians, women, younger college-educated voters or working class voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Polls show that Republicans are out of step with where most Americans are when it comes to the big social and cultural issues of the day.

Many voters felt that the GOP looked stale while Democrats, even after four years with President Obama in the White House, looked like the party that was fresh and moving in a forward direction. The question that many are asking is whether it is possible for the Republicans to really remake their image, to sell themselves as a different kind of party that speaks to the future and not the past?

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The answer from history is yes. Between 1928 and 1936 Democrats redefined themselves from a party that appealed primarily to urban machine voters and Southern rural voters into a national party that represented a broad coalition of industrial workers, progressive business leaders, university experts, farmers, immigrants and African Americans. The coalition would endure for decades, sustaining the party into the 1970s.

Jindal: How Republicans can win the future

Republicans remade their image between 1974 and 1984 by scrapping the image of their party that had been seen as corrupt after the Watergate scandal as well as a party that had little to say to younger generations of Americans. In the late 1970s and during Ronald Reagan's presidency, the GOP became the exciting party of the future, bringing together a coalition of the religious right, neoconservatives, Southerners, financial and business leaders, and "Reagan Democrats" who bolted with their party.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In each case, the parties made a number of crucial moves that were vital to the transformation. Investing in the world of ideas helped give the parties some intellectual firepower. Franklin D. Roosevelt drew on some of the best and brightest social scientists, most evident in his Brains Trust, that introduced into the campaigns and Washington new programs for dealing with pressing social problems.

During the 1970s conservatives invested huge resources in creating new think tanks, to counteract liberal institutions like Brookings, and nurturing conservative intellectuals in the universities, all of whom contributed to the strength of Ronald Reagan's arguments about deregulation, supply side economics and fighting communism.

Who will lead a post-Romney GOP?
GOP turning on Norquist?
Jeb Bush Jr.: Bringing youth to GOP
Jindal to GOP: Stop being the dumb party

The next important step was to figure out ways to pick off key parts of the electoral base of the opposition, which was in some ways central symbolically to demonstrating that the electoral winds had shifted.

Frum: Can GOP handle prosperity?

During the 1930s, FDR did well with African Americans as well as some Midwestern progressives, both constituencies that had made their home in the GOP until that time. But FDR demonstrated that he was the candidate better prepared to fulfill their ambitions.

Reagan did the same with Southerners who had been so loyal to the GOP as well as with neoconservative Democrats who were frustrated with their older party's foreign policies.

FDR and Reagan themselves were also central to the story. In the 1930s and 1980s, having a charismatic and transformative leader who could define the party, and not just represent it, helped shift how people felt about these political leaders.

During the 1930s immigrants hung pictures of FDR in their saloons and Americans listened on pins and needles to every word he said on his "fireside chats." Reagan also proved hugely popular even with voters who were not fully comfortable with his views.

Today, Republicans need to find a little of all these things if they want to make a serious push to move forward. In the search of a compelling agenda, they will need to nurture new intellectual voices like Yuval Levin at National Affairs. They will need to move forward on immigration reform which gives them the best chance to pick off some of the voters who brought Obama into office.

They will need to challenge some of their own orthodoxies in an effort to move forward on big policy challenges as U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, recently suggested when he took aim at Grover Norquist. "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," he said with regard to the now famous promise, organized by Norquist, never to raise taxes. Others in the party, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Peter King, agreed with Chambliss.

They will need to find a leader, unlike any in the pack in recent years, who can shine on the campaign trail and who has the capacity to give the GOP a new brand name rather than just convincing voters to dutifully vote the party line.

Transformation is possible, but not easy. Unless the GOP can take these kinds of steps it will continually struggle to retain the segments of the vote it already has, while ceding even more ground to the Democrats.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT