Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Republicans can bounce back

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
November 26, 2012 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT