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 by 42 percent to 29 percent; more likely to reduce the federal budget deficit by 47 percent to 22 percent, and more likely to control federal spending by 38 percent to 21 percent. Democrats won eight of those seats.
There was a slight decline from 2004 in the proportion of voters who identified themselves as conservatives (34 percent to 32 percent) or Republicans (37 percent to 36 percent).
But Republicans got thumped mostly because centrists turned against them. Independents, who had voted Republican (48 percent to 45 percent) in the 2002 midterms, voted Democratic this time (57 percent to 39 percent). Self-styled "moderates" (47 percent of the electorate) voted Democratic, 61 percent to 39 percent.
Support among whites for the GOP dropped from 58 percent 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 percent 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 plunge 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 poll taken by the Tarrance Group the weekend before the election, 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 of our 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 political party running on a nativist platform has ever 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 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 percent 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.