Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus deserves credit for launching a reclamation project for his beleaguered party…
But take it from some of those who have been there. The problems outlined in the frank report will not be solved by tweaks to the Republican message or by limiting the number of candidate debates in 2016 or without a potentially bruising internal fight that will pit GOP constituencies and leaders against one another in a debate over ideas and issues.
Democrats have seen this movie. A quarter century ago, the Democrats had lost five of six presidential elections, two by landslide margins in the popular vote…
Based on the Democrats’ history, what Priebus has begun could have a long way to run before Republicans can look to consistent success in presidential races. “You get a change in the party when three things come together — new ideas, a new organizational base and an attractive new standard bearer who understands the ideas and this new orientation in his bones,” Galston said.” It’s not something you learn in a briefing book.”
Most party chairmen try to avoid the headlines. But in recent weeks, Priebus has adopted a pose of brutal candor, trying to stir up his party with dire predictions and frank language. “Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren’t inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital. Our primary and debate process needed improvement,” he said, diagnosing all that went wrong in last year’s campaign. “There’s no one solution,” Priebus continued. “There’s a long list of them.”…
In Brooklyn, conservative black clergy told Priebus about the harm done by Republican efforts to cleanse voter rolls. In Denver, Hispanic Republicans talked about the pain caused by Mitt Romney’s promise of “self-deportation.” In California, Priebus met with an elected Asian-American Republican who regularly sees 10 Democrats at community events she attends alone. Even the donors were restless. “Look, you are young. You are smart. If you want a job, I’ll give you a job down the hallway,” Priebus remembers a major Republican donor in New York City telling him in December. “But here’s the deal. If you are not going to be big and bold, don’t waste my time. Don’t waste your kids’ time. Don’t waste your wife’s time.”…
Priebus made his proposals at the very moment when the uncompromising guardians of the party’s right wing had gathered outside of Washington to bash the capital’s consultant class–that collection of professional campaign technicians who know winning in presidential elections means keeping the party from veering too far to the right. “Stop listening to the professional politicians and consultants most responsible for those political train wrecks,” warned longtime activist L. Brent Bozell III in a typical turn that garnered huge applause. Other mainstays of social conservatism, like the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly and Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed, warn that they will fight any effort to change the party’s approach to gay marriage. “If someone tries,” warns Reed, “they’re going to have to get through me.” Says Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council: “Obviously the RNC report was designed to pander to the GOP’s wealthy elites.”
Further fueling suspicions on the right of an anti-conservative vendetta led by Rove and the R.N.C., Rove and party leaders are working together to develop a high-tech digital platform designed to facilitate voter and donor contact and to replicate the major advances in digital campaigning achieved by the Obama campaign.
More broadly, the alliance between Rove and the R.N.C. does substantiate the view that establishment forces are driving the reform movement within the Republican Party, an establishment that includes much of corporate America, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Bush family and its allies, and the more moderate, traditionalist donor community…
In January, I pointed out that “If the conservative movement continues on its downward trajectory, the American business community, which has the most to lose from Republican failure, will be the key force arguing for moderation.”
That moment has come. The Priebus report and Rove’s Conservative Victory Project together mark a significant escalation in the battle between the center and the right over the soul of the Republican Party.
Still, these efforts merely clear the decks of some existing objections, not dramatically expand Republican appeal. The 2012 election revealed insufficient GOP enthusiasm among working-class Americans and plummeting support among rising demographic groups, particularly Asians and Latinos. Appealing to these voters will require more than repetition of the Republican economic message circa 1980. They want the reassurance of a modern, functioning safety net and the realistic hope of economic and social mobility. Republicans have yet to effectively address either priority.
This is partly an institutional problem. A smattering of conservative policy experts is working on these issues — conservative alternatives on health and education reform or promoting social capital and family stability. But the major conservative think tanks tend to be driven by ideological and donor priorities. Few conservative institutions operate effectively at the confluence of policy and politics.
Democratic reformers in the 1980s and ’90s had the Democratic Leadership Council to help reshape their identity and lay the policy foundations for Bill Clinton’s presidential run. Britain’s Conservative Party has the Centre for Social Justice, which in the past year has produced policy documents on fighting modern slavery, addressing child poverty, breaking the cycle of domestic abuse and strengthening marriage. Where is the Republican equivalent?
Major Republican donors seem perfectly willing to support the presidential races of quixotic candidates. They foot the bill for television attack ads. They seem less interested in funding the revival of ideas and policy that is a prerequisite to reestablishing a GOP majority. It is a strategic failure of the first order.
The RNC report does not challenge the role of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in beginning the delegate selection. Perhaps it is not worth the trouble to challenge these states’ anachronistic entitlement; like all entitlements, it is fiercely defended by the beneficiaries. But a reform process that begins by accepting this crucial component of the status quo substantially limits possibilities. By the time these four states have had their say, the field of candidates often has been considerably — and excessively — winnowed, and the outcome is, if not settled, given a trajectory that is difficult to alter.
Supporters of Sen. Rand Paul, or of any other candidate thoroughly unenthralled by the policies and procedures that have resulted in Republicans losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, are understandably suspicious of any proposed changes that might tilt the nomination process against the least known and less-lavishly funded candidates. They are especially apt to squint disapprovingly at the RNC’s suggestion of regional primaries…
Anyway, tinkering with the party’s political process is no substitute for improving the party’s political substance. No nominating process featuring an array of candidates as weak and eccentric as the Republicans’ 2012 field would have produced a much better result. So the party must begin whatever 2016 process it devises by fielding better candidates, which should not be so difficult.
In a democracy, it isn’t enough to move toward the public on issues of your own choosing; you have to show the voters that you’re interested in what they most care about as well. And on health care, education, jobs, you name it, the current G.O.P. is simply not equipped to meet that challenge.
So long as that remains the case, a Republican Party that takes the direction its elites seem to want to chart could easily find itself in an extremely perilous political position. It would have sidelined the concerns of many millions of voters, effectively shutting their views out of the political process, without necessarily gaining the kind of support in the center that would make that sidelining a net plus. There are plenty of social conservatives, evangelical and Catholic and Mormon, who would be happy to have an excuse to vote for centrist Democrats on economics or foreign policy, plenty of working class voters who would see a pro-immigration, pro-amnesty G.O.P. as yet another reason to stay home. For Republicans to thrive despite these losses, they would need to make substantial gains with other cohorts … and again, it’s awfully hard to see that happening so long as the party’s economic policy conversation mostly consists of office-holders attacking the Ryan budget from the right.
Parties need reliable voters before they need anything else. A party elite can rebel against its own base successfully, but only if there’s a bigger base waiting to be built. A G.O.P. that moves to the center on social and economic issues simultaneously might achieve that kind of expansion. But jettisoning cultural conservatives in order to protect an unpopular economic agenda is just as likely to have the opposite effect — losing more in disaffection than it gains through outreach, and consigning G.O.P. elites to exactly the kind of purer-but-smaller, permanent-minority fate that their revolt is intended to escape.
Let’s begin with what we know to be true. We know that Barack Obama beats John McCain and Mitt Romney. Now, we can take that information — add in demographic data and polling information — and extrapolate that Republicans are in deep trouble.
And maybe they are. On the other hand, is it fair to assume that Obama and Romney are representative of their respective ideologies? Obamaism, absent the charismatic cult of Obama, might not have been nearly as effective. Conservatism, with a better messenger, might have been much more appealing.
What if — instead of Obama versus Romney — the election had been, say, Dennis Kucinich versus Marco Rubio? Would the liberal vision still have looked as compelling in contrast?
This is a question at least worth asking before we upset the apple cart.
Blocs of “natural Democrats” have become natural Republicans before. Indeed, in at least one instance, it happened with shocking rapidity. As I noted last time, in the 1960s, droves of white Democrat ethnics—Italians, Eastern Europeans, the Irish—started voting Republican in a backlash against the Democrats’ continued embrace of civil rights in the wake of a failed open housing bill and the urban riots. Only an eye-blink earlier, they had been considered the soul of the New Deal coalition…
Part of the fantasy certain pro-reform Republicans like to broadcast about Hispanics, family-oriented, churchgoing traditionalists, is that they are somehow natural conservatives, just waiting for the Republicans to slough off the skin of bigotry before they can embrace Reaganism en masse just like every other ordinary God-fearing American. Liberals intelligently respond by pointing to polling demonstrating that if anything, Hispanics are more liberal than voters in general on all sorts of issues—for instance, 75 percent of Hispanics prefer “a bigger government providing more services” rather than “a smaller government providing fewer services,” compared to 41 percent for the general population. But what if they start becoming “Italian”? That is to say, what if Hispanics, less hobbled by official discrimination, follow the pattern of other immigrant groups before them, become increasingly upwardly mobile—and become increasingly identified, by themselves and others, as “white.” Is it not reasonable to assume that they might become more Republican? That would certainly be the historical precedent: more and more immigrant groups (excluding, of course, African-Americans), becoming “white.”
The very existence of a more immigrant-friendly Republican Party, meanwhile, might do much to assuage the sort of mainstream, moderate white voters who identify themselves by their tolerance (many of them quite conservative on economic issues) that it is now “safe” to vote Republican.
I recently asked a smart veteran Republican pollster what his party could do to turn things around in the near future. His response what refreshingly honest: Nothing. The Republican brand will improve, he continued, only when the president screws up…
Since the GOP brand is damaged, it has little credibility with certain voters. And because politics is invariably in the eye of the beholder, voters who don’t even consider listening to the GOP will have to become receptive to Republican arguments before they are willing to consider voting for Republican candidates.
But that isn’t likely to happen until those voters grow disillusioned with the Democrats. That disillusionment could come next week, next year or in 10 years, depending on events and circumstances. But voters won’t listen to the recalibrated Republican message — or even new GOP messengers — until they are looking for something new.
With Republicans increasingly split on policy and strategy — hardly a recipe for political success in 2014 or 2016 — GOP grass-roots activists, party leaders and “outside” groups still need to find a compelling case for swing voters and weak Democrats to reassess their assumptions about the two parties. For now, only the president and congressional Democrats can give them that.