An irony of politics is that Republicans are most appealing to moderates when they are forthrightly conservative.
The most popular, and, arguably, the only successful Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower half a century ago was Ronald Reagan, who said Republicans should paint the differences between themselves and Democrats "in bold colors, not pale pastels."
A survey taken last month by Onmessage Inc. of 12 swing districts held by Republicans indicated just how pale the pastels have become. Democrats were viewed as more likely to cut taxes for the middle class, more likely to reduce the federal budget deficit and more likely to control federal spending. Democrats won eight of those seats. There was a slight decline from 2004 in the proportion of voters who identified themselves as conservatives (to 32 percent from 34 percent) or Republicans (to 36 percent from 37 percent).
But Republicans got thumped mostly because centrists turned against them. Independents, who'd voted Republican in the 2002 midterms by a margin of 48 to 45 percent, voted Democratic this time, 57 to 39 percent. Self-styled "moderates" (47 percent of the electorate) voted Democratic, 61 to 39 percent.
Support among whites for the GOP dropped from 58 to 52 percent, almost certainly a reflection of the change in voting preference of the moderates. More alarming for future GOP prospects was the plunge (from 38 to 26 percent) among Hispanics. It's difficult to see how a Republican can win in 2008 without carrying Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. And it's difficult to see how a Republican can carry those states if he gets only a quarter of the Hispanic vote.
The freefall in Hispanic support is a product of the hard line that House GOP leaders took against "amnesty" for illegal aliens. Most Americans including a majority of Hispanics want stronger action against illegal immigration. The border fence Congress approved this year is popular. But, according to a recent poll by the Tarrance Group, it is popular chiefly as a first step toward a comprehensive solution that would include some form of amnesty. Only a third of Americans support an enforcement-only approach to illegal immigration, the Tarrance Group said. A Pew poll in April produced a similar result.
The election returns validated these polls. In Arizona, where concern about illegal immigration is greatest, Republicans J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf, running on an enforcement-only platform, lost big.
This shouldn't be surprising. Americans are warm-hearted and generous. They favor center-right solutions to most problems but not a vendetta against people whose "crime" consists chiefly of doing what it takes to feed their families.
It was ever thus. No party running on a nativist platform has been successful nationally. When House Republicans traded in the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan for the sour crabbiness of Pat Buchanan, their fate was sealed.
President Bush understands that unless the GOP regains the Hispanic votes that House Republicans drove away, their future will be bleak. This is behind his otherwise unfortunate choice of the undistinguished Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, over the very capable Michael Steele, who is African American. (Interestingly, blacks were the only ethnic group among whom Republicans recorded gains in 2006.)
Liberals engaged in wishful thinking say the election was a repudiation of social conservatism. The results of referenda around the country make it clear this is not so.
A ban on racial preferences passed easily in Michigan. Initiatives defining marriage as the union of one man with one woman passed easily in seven states, failing narrowly only in Arizona (49 to 51 percent), and only because that initiative would have banned civil unions, too. (Americans want to preserve the institution of marriage, but they don't want to discriminate against gays.) And while Arizonans were turning out Republicans who ran on enforcement-only immigration platforms, they approved (74 to 26 percent) a measure making English the state's official language.
Republicans should retain their social conservatism and regain their economic conservatism. But the conservatism that wins elections is a conservatism of optimism and inclusion, not doom, gloom and ethnic division. Republicans will not regain their majority without fidelity to Ronald Reagan's principles. But they may need Mr. Reagan's attitude even more.