Step 1: Admit the Problem
The modern Republican Party has a disease.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of; everyone has a relative who has been afflicted with the same malady, loves someone who has gone through it. President Obama’s Democratic Party has an uncle, John Kerry’s Democratic Party, that had the sickness. And its uncle, Walter Mondale’s Democratic Party, might have had one of the worse cases anyone has ever seen.
Such a crippling condition is widely observed and freely diagnosed. There is no shortage of advice. But, ultimately, it’s up to the patient to accept and admit something is wrong. And after a decade in denial, the GOP seems to have finally reached that point.
Some addicts are confronted through an intervention. Others run to Oprah. In the case of a political party that appears to have lost the capacity to win national elections, redemption starts with establishing something called the Growth and Opportunity Project, a five-member group tasked with identifying the party’s foremost problems and solutions for moving forward. Consider it the Washington version of a cry for help.
One thing is already clear: Recovery won’t be quick, easy, or painless. There are no Band-Aids capable of closing the wounds opened by years of self-mutilating politics. The GOP faces complex problems that require comprehensive solutions. “Our policy and our messaging go hand in hand,” says one of the panel’s members, Sally Bradshaw, who is a longtime Florida-based strategist. She argues that the Republicans are incapable of restoring their brand “until both improve,” stressing: “You can’t work on one without the other.”
Admitting the problem is always the first, and the most difficult, step in any rehabilitation process. Republicans, having suffered consecutive general-election defeats brought on by conditions capable of creating a permanent political minority, are at last stepping to the lectern and clearing their throats.
“We evolve, or we become extinct,” says Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican whose inherited libertarian gene stands out in Washington but has proved more popular in the provinces. The postelection math demonstrates plainly that if the GOP cannot amplify its appeal to Hispanic, younger, and female voters, among others, it will be forced to resort to the type of redistricting chicanery that anchored its House majority last year to keep any measure of national power. “If we can’t figure out how to grow and appeal to those other groups, we’ll become extinct. We already are essentially extinct on the West Coast and in New England,” Paul says.
The party needs to change, and if it can do so without committing what some will deem betrayal of its principles, all the better. But the demographic clock is ticking quickly, and not in Republicans’ favor. In the 2012 presidential election, GOP pollster Glen Bolger notes, “we held Democrats to 39 percent of the white vote” and still lost. “I don’t know that you can push them much lower than that.”
Much of what’s necessary is already understood. The party needs dynamic and diverse candidates, and much ink has already been disgorged on how Sen. Marco Rubio or Govs. Susana Martinez or Bobby Jindal could resuscitate the Republican brand. The party needs to locate a coherent message and, ideally, pair it with policies that attract, rather than repel, voters, says Dave Carney, adviser to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign and a veteran of the George H.W. Bush White House. “We absolutely need to get out of this mind-set that says we only need to campaign to people who think like we do.”
But, by definition, they need to do so without shedding any more of their core voters than they absolutely have to. Indeed, Republicans face a paradox that is equal parts political and mathematical: how to maximize their gains while minimizing their losses. Carney says, “The idea that we need to change our beliefs and our values and our philosophy to appeal to new people means that we don’t respect the philosophy and values of the 65 million people who are already with us.... We didn’t lose because we’re conservative, and we’re not going to win by being more liberal. We’re not going to be the better liberals.”
The Growth and Opportunity panel knows the obvious, that the party’s stammering on immigration is destructive, that gay rights has overtaken the GOP in the minds of the electorate in many parts of the country, that diehard conservatives have not lionized their party’s nominee since Ronald Reagan. From a strategic standpoint, they know they’ve fallen dangerously behind the Democrats, whose organizational advantage in 2012 was unprecedented. These are symptoms of a devastating illness, one that can be cured only with a commitment to incremental improvement. Admitting the problem is the first step. And, after conversations with more than two dozen party officials, activists and strategists, here are 11 more.
This article appears in the January 26, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Road to Recovery.