If you’re a football fan, you’ve seen it happen. A coach bursts into prominence by using offensive or defensive innovations to produce victory after victory, championship after championship. For a long time, he’s regarded as one of the best. And then, something happens.
First it’s an upset loss here and there. Then it’s a decline to mere respectability or mediocrity. The coach fires assistants, widens his search for players and tries new schemes. But nothing helps. Soon, the onetime genius is a has-been, out of ideas and out of work.
But it doesn’t happen only in football. It also happens in politics. For a long time, the Republican Party had a proven formula for presidential elections, winning seven out of 10 times from 1968 through 2004. But after two straight losses, it suddenly looks badly out of touch with the electorate.
One explanation is that Republican candidates have done so much to hurt themselves — insulting women with obtuse remarks about abortion, alienating Latinos by demonizing illegal immigrants and fighting same-sex marriage despite the public’s shift in favor of it.
But the bigger problem is that some major factors that once propelled the GOP to victory no longer exist and the party has failed to replace them. Remember Kodak? It was the leader in the film business — only to find that even the best film is obsolete in the digital era.
A generation ago, what was the biggest motivation for electing Republican presidents? The military threat and ideological challenge of world communism. Americans might not have been willing to buy a used car from Richard Nixon, but they trusted him more than Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern to resist the red tide.
Ronald Reagan won in 1980 partly because the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and were seen as surpassing us in military power. Jimmy Carter, whom he defeated, said he was surprised that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had lied to him, which would not have surprised Reagan.
Carter had signed a controversial nuclear arms control agreement. Reagan embarked on a military buildup to bankrupt the Soviets, while providing covert aid to the Afghans fighting against them. Whatever voters thought of the Republican Party, they never thought it was soft on communism. They were not always sure about Democrats.
Nixon also made the most of another fear — of crime and violence. In 1968, he ran as the candidate of “law and order” against a backdrop of rising street crime and urban riots. In the 1970s, the joke was, “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.”
In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis hurt himself by opposing the death penalty. The Illinois Republican State Central Committee put out a brochure saying, “All the murderers and rapists and drug pushers and child molesters in Massachusetts vote for Michael Dukakis” — who proceeded to lose the presidential election to George H.W. Bush.
Communism and crime were potent issues that worked for the GOP because they elicited well-grounded anxieties and seemed susceptible to tough-minded solutions. But the Soviet Union is defunct, and Vladimir Putin is mainly a nuisance. The long twilight struggle that shaped the world and the U.S. political environment is ancient history.
Besides being safer from foreign enemies, we’re safer from domestic ones. Crime has plummeted over the past two decades. The murder rate is lower than it was in 1960.
Faced with these dangers, the voting public was generally drawn to the Republican promise of toughness and resolve, which Democrats often failed to convey. But as the threats subsided, they left the GOP without a major element of its identity.
Conservatives have labored to make use of other perils. In the 1990s, we were warned of a new Cold War — with China. Since 2001, al-Qaida has become the prime foreign threat. Illegal immigration has been treated as a danger to domestic safety and security.
But the realities have never lived up to the hype. China is too important as a trade partner to fill in for the Soviet Union. The Bush administration’s bungling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq trashed the GOP’s street cred in security matters. Undocumented foreigners, it turns out, are not very scary.
Republicans had a great formula that produced a long run of success. But any football coach can tell you: When the game changes, it doesn’t matter what used to work.
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.