The past 96 hours should provide thinking Republicans both hope and despair about their party’s future. The hope centers on the Republican National Committee’s “Growth & Opportunity Project” report, an autopsy of sorts that looks at the GOP’s disastrous 2012 election and offers some highly constructive ideas. The party should take them seriously in addressing the problems that turned more than a few winnable Senate seats and a presidential election into bitter defeats. The despair, on the other hand, comes from the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual congregation of the younger element of the party’s most conservative 5 percent, this year made up chiefly of those who think last year’s problem was that the party wasn’t conservative enough. Driving over to the Gaylord’s National Harbor Hotel and Convention Center to meet with a campaign manager Saturday afternoon, I passed a group on a street corner advocating the impeachment of President Obama. It was a useful reminder of just how far out the extremes—on the right in the GOP and on the left in the Democratic Party—really are.
The 100-page Growth & Opportunity Project report was commissioned by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to look at what went wrong and why, and to recommend what the party should do to prevent it from happening again. It was prepared by GOP veterans Henry Barbour, Sally Bradshaw, Ari Fleischer, Zori Fonalladas, and Glenn McCall. The postmortem was extraordinarily frank, at one point relating: “Asked to describe Republicans, focus groups said that the party is ‘scary,’ ‘narrow-minded,’ and ‘out of touch’ and that we were a party of ‘stuffy old men.’ This is consistent with the findings of other postelection surveys.”
Critics will inevitably say the report didn’t look at every problem. True, but it looked at every problem the RNC could and should try to affect. The national party committee can’t do much to prevent some of the GOP’s more Neanderthal candidates from saying stupid things or about voters nominating, in some cases, the wrong people. The report danced around these subjects a bit in a discussion of candidate recruiting, but that’s as close as it did—or could—get.
In my lifetime, we’ve seen each party take some pretty blistering defeats. For Republicans, 1964, 1974, 2006, 2008, and last year come to mind; and for Democrats, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1994, and 2010 stand out, although some might add one or two more elections to that list. But this is the first time either party has confronted and analyzed in a systematic and public way what went wrong, why, and what’s to be done about it. For anyone truly interested in the nuts and bolts of modern campaign politics, the report’s 100 pages are good reading. So is Sasha Issenberg’s“The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” which chronicles the evolution of campaign technology up through the 2008 Obama presidential campaign; three articles by Issenberg, published in the MIT Technology Review in December, bring the book up to date through the 2012 election and the use of “big data” and analytics in smart campaigns.
Simply put, the Republican Party’s electoral skill set, which was state of the art as recently as the 2004 George W. Bush reelection campaign, has atrophied to a much greater degree than even some of the smartest Republicans suspected before the 2012 election. The report is a very smart first step, but it will be just a footnote in history if it isn’t effectively followed up on and embraced by the GOP’s candidates, campaigns, and party apparatus on the state and local levels.
Then there is CPAC. Years ago, I used to attend, mostly to listen to the speakers, and I even appeared on a panel once. But as the conference grew increasingly exotic—if possible, even more so than Iowa’s GOP presidential straw poll (which I’ve sworn to never waste time attending again)—it became apparent that CPAC is representative of only one faction of the Republican Party, a group that national figures have to acknowledge and sometimes appear in front of, but certainly one that most don’t want to be too closely identified with.
It may not be too melodramatic to say that over the next couple of years, the Republican Party faces a fork in the road. Following one path, the GOP can seek to address what has gone wrong, the narrowness of the party’s appeal, and the intolerance that has alienated so many minority, female, young, and moderate voters that Republicans have a hard time prevailing in federal races outside of carefully drawn conservative enclaves. Taking the other road could lead the party over a cliff in 2016, in much the same way Barry Goldwater led Republicans to disaster in 1964.
This article appears in the March 19, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Fork in the Road.