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The reaction from conservative pundits to Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s decision last week to become a Democrat would lead some to believe that this was the final nail in the Republican Party’s coffin. The implication is that the GOP’s stock with voters will sink further as it becomes more ideological. For Republicans to succeed in the future, people like David Frum at NewMajority.com tell us that the party must stop mistreating its moderate members. They say this sort of purging of the impure turns off moderate voters, that desirable cohort Bush split in 2000 and 2004 and Obama won handily last November.
What is worse is the youth vote went decidedly for Obama in 2008, a fact that naturally horrifies Republicans. Supposed voices for young Republicans like Meghan McCain continue to sound the alarm that the GOP is losing ground with the youth of America because the party is not inclusive enough.
Here’s how the narrative usually goes: Young voters find this sort of ideological rigidity especially distasteful. The GOP now has to play catch up on the middle-of-the-road rhetoric that delivered the next generation of voters for Obama and the Democrats. Specter’s switch reinforces the idea that the Republican Party is not a big tent but an exclusive club for only the true believers.
But there are problems with this argument on its assumptions alone.
Establishment Republicans have been propping up the reliably liberal Specter for years, and there was little support for his 2010 primary challenger Pat Toomey among the major fundraising committees.
As for ideology, the Democratic Party is arguably just as beholden to its own activist wing. The MoveOn.org crowd brings in the money for the party and it howls at conservative Blue Dogs for their unorthodox views on social or economic issues.
Is it indeed true that young voters are not voting for Republicans because of this perception that the party is too ideological? Perhaps, but more importantly, will they continue to feel this way in future elections? The youth of America may be on an Obama high at the moment, but the euphoria may already be slipping away as the reality of the president’s spending policy sinks in.
Part of Obama’s youth appeal was the idea that his candidacy represented a shift from the destructiveness of our parents’ generation. A politically independent friend of mine tells me that our generation sees the current problems with the economy, the environment and social issues as being unfairly foisted upon us by the people who screwed it all up in the first place. Obama was supposed to deliver us from this political evil to the promised land of change.
This is precisely why the Democrats’ lock on the current generation of voters is hardly a guarantee. It will not be long before many college students who voted for Obama begin to see the price of change on their paychecks. The Congressional Budget Office predicted in their March 2009 report budget deficits over three times as large as those over the last several years, and the total deficit over the next 10 years is predicted to be $10 trillion. Young adults paying bills, college loans and mortgages will not stand for much more government spending expansion if that means higher taxes.
This is when the Republican Party can step in. Without the burden of having to apologize for big spenders like Specter, a more ideologically “pure” GOP can develop conservative policy ideas to present as alternatives to what will certainly be a more expansive and more expensive federal government. Young adults will need a party with strong leadership and strong ideas. The Republican Party must expect both of these qualities out of their elected officials.
Republicans can and should be proactive on shaping the future of the party partly on the ideas of responsible spending and limited government. If Obama and the Democrats continue to submit budgets with outrageous deficits, the GOP can expect the winds of the political fallout to shift in their direction.
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