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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT