What’s odd about it is that for so long, it was Democrats who were thought to lack an understanding of the role identity and values play in politics. I certainly thought that. What I used to say when hectoring audiences of liberals is that, with a few exceptions (such as Bill Clinton), for a long time it seemed that elections would proceed this way: The Democrat would say, “If you read my 10-point plan, I believe you will see that I offer a superior choice to my opponent.” And the Republican would point to the Democrat and say, “That guy hates you and everything you stand for.” Candidates such as John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis (sample quote: “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.”) just didn’t get it.
I think the answer is that Republicans can still play identity politics; the problem is that identity appeals can’t capture a majority of voters for them anymore, at least not nationally (on the local and state level, when they’re appealing to smaller groups of voters, it still works perfectly well). Ironically, it’s because they’re more defined by identity than ever — an identity as the party of old white guys — that they are stymied when they try to figure out how to play identity politics that goes beyond that demographic.