A changing of the guard on foreign policy won’t happen, however, without an internecine battle of epic proportions, considering the intensity with which neoconservatives loathe the party’s nascent libertarian wing. “I don’t think … the antiwar sentiment is durable. The Republican Party is not going to find itself in five or 10 years committed to neo-isolationsim,” Rove says confidently. “It’s just not likely to happen.”
For now, the GOP’s most visible figures on foreign policy are graybeards McCain and Graham, interventionists both. But their third amigo, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, has been strategically replaced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the Republican from New Hampshire, who has the advantages of being female and young (44). This may signal an acknowledgment within the party that, at the very least, a generational shift on foreign policy might be prudent.
Step 11: Give Power to the People
Republicans are likely to win their first big confrontation with the Obama administration over energy policy, as most handicappers predict the Keystone XL pipeline will receive approval. Their second, much more consequential, battle will ensue over emissions rules on coal-fired power plants.
Republicans, and coal-state Democrats, are likely to treat this as the War on Coal’s Battle of the Bulge.
Obama’s reticence on energy and environmental issues, outrageous to the Left, has served as an impetus to those who see in the nation’s energy-generating potential a winning economic argument. Daniels, the newly installed president of Purdue University, cites energy as “the single biggest break this economy’s gotten in decades” and calls for the “absolute maximization” of energy exploration. Read: Party elders have no intention of backing away from “drill, baby, drill.”
“Among those things that can be the most direct contributors to more opportunity in this country, there’s none bigger than the breakthrough in energy,” Daniels says, adding that anyone who stands in the way of aggressive resource cultivation “will have a lot to explain to a country with enormous unemployment.”
Any explanation, of course, would flow from environmental, climate, and health concerns. But Daniels and others believe that voters, faced with choosing between conservation and spiking energy prices, will decide based on their wallets. “You have to make it relatable to the guy filling up his tank for $80 or $90,” Merrill says.
Steph 12: Build It, and They Will Come
During Romney’s Massachusetts governorship, particularly in the early going before he spent much of his energy laying the groundwork for his 2008 White House bid, a signature initiative was an innovative approach to land-use policies. Marketed as “smart growth,” the anti-sprawl efforts rewarded municipalities that pursued zoning reform to scale back lot-size minimums and to prioritize downtown transportation hubs around which mixed-use buildings could cluster; it was termed “transit-oriented development.”
Its chief advocate, both within Romney’s Cabinet and publicly, was Doug Foy, a longtime environmentalist whose appointment as state development chief was viewed as an early demonstration of the governor’s willingness to cast broadly for a “best and brightest” team. Foy framed smart growth as almost harking back to a more Rockwellian time. Towns prohibiting smaller lots and clustered real-estate development were, Foy says, “literally creating a community where their children or their parents couldn’t live, because they couldn’t afford it.” Using his own daughter as an example, he points out that young people frequently couldn’t afford large suburban homes and thus had to live farther away from their families. “It’s almost un-American to build communities that don’t have places for all the generations in a family,” he says.
Not only that, but providing the infrastructure for widely flung communities is more expensive: longer sewage pipes, electricity lines, routes for snowplows.
Romney shied from promoting his smart-growth past on the presidential campaign trail; if framed poorly, it can sound like the type of government “overreach” not in vogue among the Republican base (“they’re going to tell me where I can and cannot build my house?”). Indeed, Foy was increasingly sidelined as Romney’s gubernatorial term progressed, along with the administration’s pride in its smart-growth strategy. “Early on, the political handlers got uncomfortable with the term ‘smart growth,’ because the talk-show crowd had decided smart growth was a bad idea,” Foy says.
But Republicans can devise a way to pursue and message smart growth—and, more broadly, infrastructure projects—that should appeal to budget hawks and business interests. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder continues to invest considerable political capital in building a second bridge between Detroit and Ontario, Canada, because he’s convinced it will create construction jobs in the short term and promote international commercial cooperation in the long term. The economically moribund Motor City badly needs such jolts, and Snyder stands to benefit politically if his infrastructure project delivers.
During last year’s transportation-bill grappling in Washington, House Republicans succeeded in stripping dedicated funding for mass transit from the final legislation, along with money for biking and pedestrian projects. That’s fine for a party eager to cater to rural voters who rely on highways to get around. But for one hoping to entice urban voters—not to mention voters who could be convinced of the cost-effectiveness of investments in transit—embracing such projects under the guise of thoughtful, long-term budgeting would likely reap dividends.
Under Romney’s long-since-abandoned development policy, smart growth was presented as an orderly strategy to combat sprawl, framed “as an investment rather than spending.” Such a family-friendly approach to reining in local budgets should be recognizable to the GOP as any easy adjustment. And, like health care, it’s an area where states could take the lead role, without a massive federal mandate.
Maybe those are all the steps Republicans need to reposition themselves to regain power. Maybe none of them are. But the party has admitted its problem, and that’s the first and most promising one. Still, the GOP might benefit from a little help from above, perhaps through the intercession of Reagan, say, or Barry Goldwater or Robert Taft or Edmund Burke, as it seeks the serenity to accept the things it cannot change (demographic drift), the courage to change the things it can (voter outreach), and the wisdom to know the difference.
In the interim, expect plenty of meetings.
This article appears in the Jan. 26, 2013, edition of National Journal as Road to Recovery.