The American electorate has sent the Republican Party a message: the Republican Party has to be inclusive in order to remain a political force. The post-election reaction from Republican pundits suggests that they heard that message. What isn't clear is whether they understood that message, or heard what they wanted to hear.
Acknowledging that Republicans need to alter their positions on immigration and contentious social issues is a starting point. But it isn't enough. If the Republican Party merely concedes that it has to, grudgingly, soften their stance on issues that affect women and members of ethnic minorities, and toss a few token candidates into the limelight, their success will be limited.
The Republican Party's problems are deeper than simply being slightly offside with the public on these issues: they are culturally offside with the public on these issues. This is a significant challenge they will need to overcome to stay relevant.
If the Republican punditry is any indication, Republicans will work towards a deal with the White House to pass an amnesty for illegal immigrants, stop talking about rape and birth control, and parade around as many non-white candidates as possible to combat the image that the Republican Party has the diversity of a 1950s country club.
But concessions and token candidates won't change the party's image. Slapping Sarah Palin on to the bottom of the ticket in 2008 may have helped the party with some segments of the population, but the gender gap with the Democrats increased in 2008.
There will be a temptation to draft Marco Rubio as VP candidate in 2016. While it might gain the Republicans some support from the Latino community, it could backfire if it is seen as cynical tokenism (especially since he is Cuban, and the Cuban community is politically distinct from the broader Latino community).
If white Republicans plan to hide behind non-white candidates, while even a strong minority of party members appear to be uncomfortable with diversity, they will fail to expand their base. As demographics shift, this will prove to be an insurmountable obstacle for the party. Non-Caucasians and women need to feel as though the party will accept them as equals.
Republican leaders of all races need to reach out to minority communities. This means they will sometimes have to be photographed wearing ethnic garb during cultural ceremonies (without appearing uncomfortable). They will also have to refrain from accusing their opponents of being un-American when they do the same (let alone calling them secret Muslims).
Every Birther and every Republican activist who believes that Barrack Obama is a Muslim should be publicly disavowed by the party. Racially charged rhetoric about foreign trade partners such as China also need to stop. After having allowed their party to be tainted by association with people who implicitly and explicitly stoke racial tensions, the GOP will have to be squeaky clean on racial issues if they want to earn the trust of non-Caucasians. Indeed, dropping the China-bashing would give the GOP the moral high ground on a racial issue against the Democrats, whose union base loves demonizing China.
Missing from the post-election discussion is the cultural impact of Republican insensitivities respecting racial and gender issues on white males. Republicans have difficulties attracting young voters, and these insensitivities are part of that problem. It has become culturally unacceptable for many urban professionals to admit that they would vote Republican under any circumstances. Young men living in big cities tend to have non-Caucasian friends, and hang around with unattached females. Supporting a party that appears willing to reduce access to not just abortion, but birth control, can do considerable damage to their romantic prospects.
While this may seem like a frivolous argument, consider that instead of being open to moderately pro-life Republicans, young urban males are fleeing to extremely pro-choice Democrats. Running a fiercely pro-life candidate won't do the cause of ending abortion any good if they can't get elected. Public opinion dictates political decisions. Change needs to come from the outside. Similarly, backing a party that is (at least in theory) willing to deport millions of illegal immigrants, some of whom are of the same ethnic background (or even related to) as their friends would equally earn the scorn of their peers.
While urban males are not the backbone of the Republican coalition, losing by margins of over 200,000 in Miami-Dade and Cuyahoga County makes the electoral math in Florida and Ohio extremely difficult. These are states the GOP needs to win. Urbanites don't inherently disagree with the core economic values the Republicans claim to support. But if publicly supporting free-enterprise and limited government is equated with racism and sexism, potential urban Republican voters will continue to be shamed into silence. As cities grow, so will the problem.
While it has become a cliché to suggest Republicans emulate Jason Kenney's ethnic outreach efforts in Canada, the GOP needs to realize that those efforts are deeper than tweaking policy and finding non-white people to put in front of the camera. Kenney's efforts have gone far beyond that. He has spent several years becoming intimately familiar with members of these communities, and ensuring that their concerns are echoed both in policy, and in rhetoric. If a Canadian Conservative MP were to call an African American Premier (if there was one) "un-Canadian," he would surely incur the wrath of the Prime Minister's Office.
The GOP should be no less accepting of dog whistle language.
The Republicans allowed race and gender issues to sidetrack the campaign. They sacrificed at least two Senate seats in the process. Though there are many reasons the GOP failed to capture the White House, racial and gender issues were a factor.
Had Romney done as well as George W. Bush among Latino voters, he'd have won the election handily. But pandering isn't enough. If the Republican Party is to have any hope of returning to power in the near future, it has to be the party of one America.