GOP should embrace change or lose

Answer this poll question quickly. Don’t over-think your response. Go with your gut. Ready? Which political party – the Republicans or the Democrats – do you think of as being “the party of change” these days?

Answer this poll question quickly. Don’t over-think your response. Go with your gut.


Which political party – the Republicans or the Democrats – do you think of as being “the party of change” these days?

Most of you will have answered this question in a partisan manner. If you are a Democrat partisan, you naturally think the Democrats are agents of change; if you’re a Republican, you see the GOP as a catalyst for change. These predictable answers provide almost no insight into the likely outcome or best strategies for November’s elections.

It’s the responses of non-partisans that deserve our attention. And that’s what has me worried. I would imagine that most independent voters want change and feel that the Democrats are the way to get us headed in a new direction.

The key to understanding all this is the pollsters’ right direction-wrong track question about the nation today. For months now, more than 60 percent of all likely voters have been saying “wrong track” while less than half that many have been responding “right direction.” In short, most Americans, particularly Democrats and independents, believe that the status quo is not working out. These wrong-track Democrats obviously want change, hating George Bush like they do. And the vast majority of independents, even if they don’t hate Bush, are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. Republicans, not surprisingly, are more likely to see things in a more positive light.

If nothing else changes, this portends a scenario in which Republicans lose control of Congress this November. If two of every three voters go into their polling places and cast their votes for change, the Democrats will win if the Republicans are stand-patters. There are Republican strategists who disagree, of course. They say that by moving security issues up the issue agenda we will scare swing voters away from voting for the squishy Democrats that might not protect us from terror.  I’m less certain about that conclusion than I am about the desire for change. I say the mood for something different will trump even national security.

In support of my argument, I’d point to the 2003 recall election when Gov. Gray Davis was cast aside and Arnold Schwarzenegger put into his place. Most Californians were Democrats or liberals who had voted previously to put Davis into office. But these same voters—in fact, most all California voters—were so dissatisfied with the direction of the state that they decided to make a change, even if it meant voting out “their Democrat” and replacing him with a Republican that they suspected wouldn’t satisfy them. Changing the direction of California by dumping Davis was preeminent and they’d deal with Schwarzenegger later. That’s where most Americans are today about the nation. They may not really think they’ll like the Democrats, but they know they don’t like the status quo.

Republicans reading this may think I am saying we’re doomed. That’s no so. I could actually be optimistic about our chances if we’d become a party for change. Too many Republicans have become establishmentarians. We seem to revel in being the insiders that define and protect the status quo. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the Gingrich years, Republicans in Congress were true conservatives and still interested in new ideas.

Becoming a party of change doesn’t mean we cannot leverage our strategic advantage on national security issues. But it does mean that we can’t be satisfied with our present strategy in Iraq. We need new and innovative ideas for winning the war there and doing so on honorable terms. We also need better ideas for helping Americans with pocketbook issues like rising energy and healthcare costs.

Change shouldn’t threaten the Republicans. It could and should be our salvation.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.