Paul Begala on the Family Feud in the GOP

Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney, Todd Akin
From left: Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney, and Todd Akin. From left: Julie Smith / AP (Limbaugh), Stephan Savoia / AP (Romney), Whitney Curtis / Getty Images (Akin)

The holidays are about family. And family, of course, is about fighting. As Uncle George says: God gave us family so we wouldn’t have to fight with strangers.

Right now the Republicans are having a family feud. And, keep in mind, Republicans know how to brawl. When Democrats fight, it’s with a sternly worded op-ed in The New York Review of Books. Republicans prefer brass knuckles. The Paleoliths are fighting the Neoliths, and the Cro-Magnons are fighting the Neanderthals. And I couldn’t be happier.

Change is always painful, but smart Republicans look at the numbers and know they have no choice. They can blame the pathetically lame candidacy of Mitt Romney if they like, and they have a point. I’m pretty sure Romney’s mere presence in Manny Pacquiao’s dressing room caused the fighter to lose. But Romney was a symptom, not the problem. There are larger forces at work that have caused the GOP to lose the popular vote in five of the last six elections.

Because it’s the Christmas spirit and I am full 
of the milk of human kindness, allow me to suggest four issues on which the GOP must moderate, modernize, and modify:

Taxes. As the president has said, taxes are going up on the rich, one way or the other. One way would protect 98 percent of Americans from an income-tax hike; the other would drag 100 percent into higher brackets. Smart Republicans know they have to cut their losses on this, and the sooner the better. They can still be the party of low taxes—they just have to stop being the party that will hold the middle class hostage to serve the rich.

Immigration. The Republicans need to take it off the table. Pass Obama’s immigration reform—and reintroduce themselves to millions of Latinos and Asian-Americans who think GOP stands for Get Outta Our Party. Former president George W. Bush recently called on his party to moderate on immigration. Let me put it this way: when you’re dumber than George W. Bush on an issue ...

Gay marriage. Be as liberal as that old lefty Dick Cheney. Or at least say, like Obama, that it should be left up to the states. The GOP has gone from losing young voters by 1 percent in 2000 to losing the youth vote by 24 this year. This is a gateway issue for young people. Get over it.

Abortion. No, I am not advising the Republicans to become the party of abortion rights. There is a large pro-life constituency in America, and I would not counsel the GOP to abandon it. But, guys (and they are all guys)—please, stop talking about rape. Just stop. Now. Women voters have a way of shutting down when balding, sanctimonious men minimize the issue of rape. Same with contraception: stop denigrating something 98 percent of Americans use. It was shocking when Rush Limbaugh smeared a Georgetown law student for supporting insurance coverage for contraception. It was shameful when Mitt Romney and other alleged Republican leaders lacked the guts to condemn him.

I realize this is not easy. And Republicans should know the changes I am proposing are not cost-free. But in the long term they will pay off. Lyndon Johnson famously lamented when he signed the Civil Rights Act, “we have lost the South for a generation.” More like a half-century. But it was worth it. The Democrats moved from being the party of open, ugly, overt racism to the party that has twice elected an African-American president. Pretty impressive.

Nothing the GOP must do now compares to the titanic struggle over civil rights. Their challenge is more like the one Bill Clinton confronted. In 1992 he looked at a party that had lost five of the previous six presidential elections and challenged it to change. Clinton modernized his party by being tougher on crime, skeptical of bureaucracy, iconoclastic on welfare reform, and innovative on economics.

He carried 32 states and the District of Columbia twice—but there was a cost to his reforms as well. Moving the Democrats to the middle created a space on the left that Ralph Nader lunged for. Nader got just 2.7 percent nationally in the 2000 election, but his 97,500 votes in Florida made the state close enough to steal.

Of course, President Obama has reconstituted the center-left coalition and won two national elections. The Republicans may see a temporary, self-defeating Naderesque third party emerge on the right—a home for angry nativist homophobes. So be it. If they have the time and the talent, they can bring the far right back into the fold. They just can’t allow the fringe to dominate—or they will face extinction.

Editor's note: Language of column updated with respect to the victims of the Newtown school shooting.