While fewer than 20 states have opted to operate the insurance exchanges prescribed in the Affordable Care Act, the states still have time to decide whether to expand Medicaid. The Health and Human Services Department has showed openness to a fair approximation of what Republican governors say they want: flexibility in using Medicaid funds and a willingness to allow states to attempt to structure their own cost-reduction efforts.
Poetically, in their eagerness to perform end runs around Obama on health care, Republicans have an opportunity to assert their innovation spirit. And the administration is so hopeful for buy-in on the health care law that it’s granting broad leeway to those willing to meet them partway. Earlier this month, Utah’s insurance exchange, dubbed “Avenue H,” won federal approval despite Gov. Gary Herbert’s refusal to provide plans for individuals through the exchange until next year. Herbert told HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that Avenue H was truer to “Utah principles” and that he preferred to stick with its current incarnation. Sebe-lius complied.
The health care law also gives the GOP a way to reclaim the reformist imprimatur. Republicans, says Davis, the former Democrat, “can’t be afraid of the word ‘reform.’ ” For party leaders, that pertains not just to health care but also to education, ethics, and campaign finance. The GOP philosophy “can’t simply be a negative philosophy that is opposed to particular programs,” he says. “Conservatism has seemed to be, to too many people, a purely oppositional philosophy.”
Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire GOP activist and a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, concludes, “We need to be more proactive; we need to stand for something.”
Step 8: Leave the Labs Alone
The Republican Party’s greatest policy achievements over the past decade can be traced not to the halls of Congress or the Oval Office but to state legislatures and governor’s mansions. While the national GOP was busy blowing a hole in the deficit, expanding entitlements, and further bloating the federal bureaucracy, Republican governors worked with their legislatures to balance budgets, restructure pension programs, and adopt sweeping education reforms.
When it comes to reinventing the Republican brand, then, shouldn’t Washington look to the states for leadership instead of the other way around? Gentry Collins, a former RNC political director and executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, says yes. “Regardless of whether it’s our party or the Democratic Party,” he says, “modern political history is full of examples of the party out of power, with the damaged brand, being led back to national prominence in part by what comes out of the states, particularly by the governors.”
“The rebuilding of the party has to begin out in the states,” agrees the D.C.-based Madden, whose assessment speaks to a certain self-loathing simmering within the GOP establishment after consecutive presidential defeats.
Meanwhile, as Madden faults the “Washington political complex” for dictating to the states, Spiker, the Iowa GOP chairman, blames the Beltway’s “professional political industry” for crowding out citizen activists. These conflicts—national party versus state party, and D.C. establishment versus grassroots—are moving on parallel tracks and are dividing a party in desperate need of restoring its unity. Watts, the former House member who recently contemplated a run for chairman of the Republican National Committee, captures the spirit of both struggles: “People [are] sick and tired of Washington thinking it knows best.”
RNC member Terri Lynn Land of Michigan says the solution is a balanced approach—some call it a “partnership”—in which Washington provides a macro political structure that allows states to manage their own problems with increased autonomy. “Each state is unique, and each candidate is unique,” Land says. “What Washington needs to learn is that one size does not fit all.”
Republicans are fond of highlighting their federalist roots when lauding America’s “50 laboratories of democracy,” and urging Washington to delegate more to, and learn more from, the states. Ironically, the GOP could defuse both of these budding internecine rivalries by heeding its own advice. On the tactical front, the Washington consultant class has much to learn from activists on the ground: how to recruit, organize, and build a hyper-local campaign infrastructure capable of competing with Obama’s Organizing for America machine. On the policy front, states have set examples—cost-cutting privatization efforts in Indiana; school-saving education reforms in Florida; budget-balancing entitlement changes in New Jersey—that national Republicans would be prudent to emulate rather than ignore.
Step 9: Let It Die!
For many Republicans, the nadir of the recent primary season came during a Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Fla., when moderator Wolf Blitzer pressed Ron Paul about whether a 30-year-old male who refused to buy health insurance should receive government assistance if stricken with a fatal illness. “Congressman, are you saying the society should just let him die?” Blitzer demanded. “Yeah!” hollered multiple people in the audience.