For the past few years, the salient thing about the GOP is that it has been almost entirely inwardly directed. Republicans have fixated on a handful of parochial issues—debt, deficits, the burdens of the entrepreneur, and the looming menace of Obamacare—to the exclusion of almost everything else. When something else did intrude, it was shoehorned to fit this narrow set of concerns. That’s how the theme of the GOP convention wound up being noisy grievance over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment, and why the Romney campaign’s minority-voter strategy was insisting to reporters that blacks and Hispanics cared about debt and deficits, too, and were in fact faring worse in the recession than whites.
This wasn’t an effective strategy. But neither was it actively destructive. Often, the combination of passivity and pro forma opposition to the Obama agenda made Republicans seem like bystanders to national affairs.
One way of looking at this week’s momentous events in Washington—from the Supreme Court’s rulings to the Senate’s passage of immigration reform—is as a force that will push the GOP to engage on a set of issues central to American life. The decisions the party makes will go a long way toward determining its future electoral fate.
The court’s ruling on Tuesday striking down the central provision of the Voting Rights Act means minority-voter enfranchisement will become even more of a hot-button issue. On its face, the ruling is a victory for Republicans, especially those who have pushed state voter-ID laws and other methods to limit access to the polls, but were blocked by the Department of Justice. Sure enough, Texas officials have already announced they will immediately enact a voter-ID law that was blocked before the last election. But as I’ve argued, this victory will be a poisoned chalice for the GOP if the stampede to impose new restrictions offends the minority voters most affected by these laws—who, after all, are the people Republicans desperately need to attract.
On Wednesday the court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, effectively legalizing gay marriage in California and a dozen other states and guaranteeing that the issue will now be fought in the 37 states where it’s not yet legal. As Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post noted, “Republicans will determine whether same-sex marriage becomes universal in the United States.” Republicans are already caught on the wrong side of an issue on which American opinion is rapidly shifting. (And indeed, since the election, three Republican senators have announced their support for gay marriage, most recently Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.) The prospect of a years-long battle across dozens of states, occurring while more and more Americans come to support gay marriage, has to frighten Republicans eager to shake the party’s reputation for intolerance and broaden its appeal.
On Thursday, the Senate passed a bipartisan, filibuster-proof, comprehensive immigration reform bill by a vote of 68-32. Now the action moves to the Republican-controlled House. Something resembling the Senate bill would surely win a majority in the House—if Speaker John Boehner agreed to bring such a bill to the floor. But he hasn’t agreed and may not (even though his own legacy hangs in the balance). If immigration reform fails, Republican will get the blame and almost surely pay a steep electoral price, if not in 2014, than in 2016.
It’s possible, of course, that the GOP will manage to navigate a safe passage, ushering through immigration reform and an updated Voting Rights Act, and moderating its opposition to gay rights. Or it could go the other direction. Either way, this week will be looked back upon as a turning point.