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.