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 2:28 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 2:27 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT