A blunt self-critique by the national Republican Party concludes that while the GOP is flourishing in many state capitals, it is “increasingly marginalized” and out of touch at the federal level.

In focus groups, voters who had left the Republican Party said they found the GOP to be “scary,” “narrow-minded,” “out of touch” and the party of “stuffy old men.”…

To grow as a party, the RNC assessment points out, Republican policy makers must realize that economically struggling voters “don’t care if the help comes from the private sector or the government—they just want help.”

The report notes that “instead of connecting with voters’ concerns, we too often sound like bookkeepers.”

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A new poll for the Hill newspaper finds that “more voters trust the Democratic Party than the Republican Party on budgetary issues . . . even though a strong majority actually prefer Republican fiscal policies.”…

Even Democrats demonstrated that they prefer what are normally considered GOP budget ideas. Only 44 percent of Democrats polled said deficits should be primarily reduced mostly through raising taxes, versus 40 percent who felt it should be done largely by trimming spending.

That’s the good news for the GOP. The bad news was that, when the two competing budget plans had the labels “Republican” and “Democrat” attached to them, there was a clear change in preference. A full 35 percent of respondents backed the Democrat plan in that case, while only 30 percent trusted the GOP more (the rest said they trusted neither party).

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Ari Fleischer said on Monday that the RNC’s autopsy report is an attempt to “blow a whistle” on the GOP in a bid to make it more inclusive

“We’ve lost that ability to be persuasive with people who don’t agree with us on every issue. And what Republicans need to do I think to have a bright future is to do what the governors have done, which is if someone doesn’t agree with us on every issue – we can still work with them and get things done,” he said. “That’s part of what historically Republicans have done. We need to get back to doing that again.”…

“There is a genuine generational split in the Republican Party on that issue. Many, many young conservatives are for gay rights, are for gay marriage and we openly talk about that, acknowledge that and welcome that,” he said. “That is part of what a big tent should be about. You don’t find that in the Democratic Party.”

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But while the new RNC document may move past Reagan Republicanism, it marks a different kind of restoration: of the campaigns of President George W. Bush, and in particular to his first campaign, which promised “compassionate conservatism.”

And at its core, the report is a glimpse of the party Karl Rove and George W. Bush, assisted by figures like Fleischer and Gerson, sought to create starting in the late 1990s. This was the party in which George W. Bush was elected, but one whose message shifted dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001. From there, Bush ran almost exclusively as a national security president, and by the time he began pitching elements of Social Security privatization in his second term, the move was a non-sequitur and came with none of the halo of compassion of the earlier Bush years. The Tea Party represented a wing of the party — which included some, but certainly not all, of Bush’s own aides — who saw the ostentatious push for “compassion” as a veneer over policies that ought to, they thought, triumph on the merits; and who believed that the contrast with President Barack Obama meant that the veneer was no longer needed. Romney’s private suggestion of a class war between 53% of makers and 47% of takers in the American economy represented a particularly pure version of that.

Now the Republican National Committee is returning to Bush’s original vision. The question is which policies — and in particular, what vision for solving poverty — will accompany that push.

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How to get there? Make the national party, and its nominee, less vulnerable to eruptions from the base. The report calls for the primary debate schedule to be cut back to pre-2008 levels, with maybe a dozen televised forums, and more control over who moderates them…

Missouri’s failed Senate candidate Todd Akin, patron saint of gaffes, mused about the female body’s power to nullify rape because he came out of hard-right religious politics and really believed that stuff. The RNC debuted a way to shut that whole thing down. In the report, they call for “inviting as many voters as possible into the Republican Party by discouraging conventions and caucuses for the purpose of allocating delegates to the national convention.” Take away the caucus system and there’s no Ron Paul movement; there’s no stubborn Rick Santorum candidacy for social conservatives to rally behind.

Do that, and maybe the party can be as conservative as it likes in the states without the national candidate having to sweat it.

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The conventional wisdom among Republican elites about the election congealed seemingly the instant Mitt Romney lost. It was that the party needed to tone down its social-issues talk, embrace comprehensive immigration reform, improve its get-out-the-vote operation, highlight more nonwhite and female spokespersons, shorten the presidential primaries, and take greater control over the primary debates. These recommendations come naturally to Republican elites. Compared to rank-and-file Republicans, they are more likely to favor same-sex marriage and comprehensive immigration reform on principle, and those who are opposed to one or both generally don’t care much about the issues. They don’t, however, tend to have any major problems with the Republican economic agenda and do not believe it needs to be rethought in any serious way. The Republican report reflects this elite conventional wisdom perfectly, just perfectly. That doesn’t mean everything in the report is wrong. I’m inclined to think its suggested reforms of the primary process would be marginally helpful for conservatism. And I have nothing against highlighting Republicans who aren’t white men. The report does not, however, engage in the thorough data-driven analysis of what has gone wrong for Republicans that the party needs.

Take the most explicit policy recommendation the report makes: that Republicans embrace comprehensive immigration reform. The report doesn’t even try to demonstrate that this step would win the party more voters than it loses–which, you might think, is pretty important when political advice is being handed out. It ignores all of the political arguments made by critics of comprehensive reform, let alone the policy arguments.

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For decades, opposition to the Soviet Union was the glue that held the disparate elements of the movement together. For a brief time, it was believed that the Global War on Terrorism might take its place. That hasn’t happened. And it seems the much-needed soul-searching that occurred after Romney’s loss has resulted in a sort of tacit agreement that an amicable divorce might be preferable to the status quo…

It’s going to be a very interesting couple of years. The 2016 primary won’t just be about selecting a standard bearer, it’ll be about picking which standard to bear.

It’s possible we could see radical change that might even lead to the rise of a third party. That could happen if the GOP nominates a candidate deemed unacceptable by any one wing of the movement. On the other hand, if the GOP selects a more traditional conservative, such as, say, Rubio, the re-ordering might be more subtle. Some elements of the conservative movement might have to accept a demotion, of course, but it’s possible they would reluctantly accede to the demands of modernity.

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Note, though, how the report doesn’t actually call for the party to change its position. Just being more “tolerant” of other views doesn’t really seem like it’s going to get the party much of anywhere with young voters. If the party’s platform is still hostile to these issues, then that’s exactly what people will focus on.

As for the sections on immigration and women: It seems like even the RNC has forgotten its own 2012 convention. Much of the advice here to be more inclusive of minorities and women was on full display at the convention, for all the good it did them. The report acknowledges that the party must tackle its reputation with ethnic minorities and “champion comprehensive immigration reform,” but this is not a policy paper and the most important question – What that immigration reform should look like – goes unanswered.

This isn’t to downplay the report. That this kind of messaging is coming directly from the Republican National Committee is important. Fundamentally, though, the only component of the report that actually feels new is its ability to mention the existence of gays without immediately retreating into “traditional marriage” talk.

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[W]hat about those folks who really only vote GOP not because they’re generally conservative but because they have traditional values — as this Twitter exchange shows:

“@MichaelBD: Once the GOP follows Charles Murray’s advice it frees people like me up to vote for Dems on foreign policy, basic competence.”

“@Joncoppage: Not to mention evangelicals concerned about the poor/social justice, increasingly environmental stewardship, etc”

“@MichaelBD: there may be a winning GOP coalition out there, but it isn’t built on Bloomberg voters.”

I like to refer to social conservatives as battered wives, but even battered wives eventually wake up and realize that leaving their man is preferable to what they’re enduring. Well, that or they end up dead…

Are we sure that a) the GOP can be sufficiently liberal enough to compete with honest-to-goodness liberals and b) it will bring in more people than it will lose?

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The only certainty is that the candidate who comes forward as a cookie-cutter “three-legged-stool” (strong defense, economic conservative, social traditionalist) conservative is going to wind up pleasing no one and running into the same limitations that Mitt Romney did: There are not enough of those voters who follow those prescriptions to win the White House.

So where does this lead the party? I believe it will sort itself out in the primary itself, which becomes more akin to constructing a parliamentary majority (alliances, concessions, truces, compromises of convenience). Rand Paul will go for a libertarian majority, while Marco Rubio will present a pro-life, pro-immigration, domestic reform and internationalist agenda. The candidate who can both win the biggest share of and recruit more supporters to the GOP is the winner, and at the end factions agree to disagree on some items in common cause against an opponent devoted to the domineering welfare state.

This is a very attractive proposition. Fitting the party to a real candidate rather than forcing the candidate to contort himself to fit a static platform makes a lot of sense. For one thing, you’ll get a more genuine party leader. For another, the primary will determine where a substantial coalition can be formed. And most important, this puts a premium on policy…

So 2016 wanna-be’s get going: Shape your own agenda, find and recruit your own coalition, and determine how you are going to fund it. But don’t spend any time trying to be all things to all parts of a coalition that for all intents and purposes no longer exists.

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