Reeling from two disastrous elections and a desultory performance during their first 100 days out of power in Washington, Republicans hope to improve their party's fortunes on May 2 by unveiling a makeshift shadow government to put a brighter spotlight on GOP alternatives to the aggressive agenda set by President Obama and his ruling Democratic majority.
Dubbed the National Council for a New America, the undertaking is the brainchild of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, who has recruited once and future party leaders to serve as the designated go-to guys on specific topics such as education and energy policy. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are scheduled to star at the council's rollout at the Pie-tanza pizzeria in Arlington, Va., in what the group bills as "the first in the series of town halls that will take place all over the country to hold our conversation with the American people."
Cantor's recruits also include the party's 2008 standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain of Arizona; Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Cantor told National Journal, "We need to demonstrate, as Republicans, that we are connected with a broad cross section of the nation as an alternative and counterbalance to what we see in Washington." Quite a few Republicans see that as an urgent need, especially now that just 21 percent of the electorate identifies with the GOP, according to the April 21-24 Washington Post/ABC News poll. That percentage is the lowest that the Post/ABC News poll has found for Republicans in more than 25 years. "We haven't -- as a party, nationally -- been very good at articulating a policy platform that really does connect with the needs of the 21st century," said Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Although the council's leadership decided against embracing the term, their group has elements of a Parliament-style "shadow Cabinet." In Britain, every Cabinet secretary has an official counterpart in the out-of-power party. In the GOP's more informal setup, Cantor said, prominent Republicans will duel with the Obama administration in policy areas where they have a "track record" and are comfortable representing the opposition.
"We need to demonstrate, as Republicans, that we are connected with a broad cross section of the nation."--Eric Cantor, creator of the National Council for a New America
Barbour, who will speak out on energy policy, was an architect of the GOP's stunning capture of the House and Senate in 1994 when he chaired the Republican National Committee. The Mississippi governor lauds Cantor's creation and optimistically assesses his party's opportunities. "If we rebuild the party from the bottom up, our congressmen and senators will be the beneficiaries," Barbour said. "I like Eric's ideas of a very participatory process and a massive conversation with the 60 million Americans who voted for the Republican candidate for president."
But that tally added up to only 46 percent of the vote. And it's not apparent how the council and this cast of Republican heavyweights will address the party's need to expand its shrinking coalition. That challenge was underscored this week when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who had been one of the party's few remaining moderates on Capitol Hill, bolted across the aisle to the Democrats.
Republicans aren't looking to McCain to lead the party again, and Romney's run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 ended with mixed reviews. The former governor of Florida, though popular at home, labors under one big negative -- he has the same surname as the president who left office early this year with one of the lowest job-approval ratings in recent history.
Barbour is still enormously popular with the GOP rank and file from his days as RNC chairman. And Jindal is widely viewed as a rising star, despite his lackluster performance in February delivering the Republican response to Obama's address to a joint session of Congress. But Jindal and Barbour represent the GOP's comfort zone -- the Deep South -- not exactly the swing-state territory where the party needs to become more competitive again.
Yet none of that appears to deter the council's charter members. "This group offers the possibility of getting Republican leaders attached to good ideas," Jeb Bush told National Journal this week. Noting his own interest in education policy, he said that he is hoping for opportunities to identify ideas and technologies that facilitate learning and insisted that he is open to a bipartisan "convergence of views" with the Obama administration.
Cantor was intent on broadening the council's leadership to include voices outside of Washington. "We want to look beyond the Beltway and assure that ideas come from communities across the nation," he said. "This group will be bigger than any of its individual parts." Cantor declined to get specific about structure and funding, or his future role. In setting up the council, he attempted to work closely with other senior House Republicans. Cantor emphasizes that he envisions the group working in sync to achieve the goal set by Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: becoming "the party of better solutions" on Capitol Hill.
Boehner has created working groups within the House Republican Conference to craft policy alternatives on the economy, health care, and energy, for starters. "The idea is ... for our 'solutions groups' to do their work by sparking a dialogue outside Washington," a Boehner spokesman said. Boehner has also launched a GOP State Solutions project to improve coordination among federal and state party leaders.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who is in charge of the House GOP's health care group, welcomes Cantor's council as "another place [where] national party leaders can create a synergy with House members and the public to discuss ideas."
In launching the council, Cantor released a letter on April 30 signed by the leaders of the House and Senate GOP. That letter made little reference to Congress but said that the new organization seeks "an honest, open conversation with the American people." Although Senate Republican leaders have ratified the effort, they tend to be less entrepreneurial than their House counterparts and are not playing an active role in it.
Aside from the fact that all of the council's national leaders have run for president or been mentioned as possible White House candidates, they are also united by their interest in policy and ideas, says GOP political strategist Mike Murphy, who has informally advised the group. "All of these are brainiac Republicans," Murphy said. "They have been outside-the-box thinkers and trailblazers who believe that their party can do a better job."
None of them served in the Bush administration. Nothing should be read into that fact, Cantor said, adding that he expects that "plenty of [Bush] administration people will participate." Jeb Bush said, "I would not be part of this if it was a repudiation of my brother's administration."
Others were more open to viewing the council in a post-W. context. When a party controls the White House, Barbour said, it becomes a "top-down operation.... We are stronger as a participatory, bottom-up party." GOP strategist Ed Gillespie, who was a top aide on Capitol Hill as well as in the Bush White House, and has also been a prominent Washington lobbyist, said, "The party benefits from new faces and a new generation to emerge." Four of the council's big names are hardly a new generation, though: They range in age from 56 to 72. The fifth, Jindal, is 37. Cantor is 45.
Republicans are mindful that Democrats have persistently described the GOP as having become "the Party of No" since Obama took office. Although the new council's leaders insist that their latest initiative is not a response to what they view as unwarranted criticism, they welcome the opportunity to emphasize positive talking points.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said that the GOP has been adjusting "erratically" to being an opposition party. As the "loyal opposition," he said, Republicans need to readily acknowledge when Obama has good ideas -- Daniels calls the new president's education policies "quite good" in general -- "because then when you take exception to something, at least people know you do look at these things case by case; you're not just reflexively saying, 'No.' "
Asked to grade the GOP's performance to date, Utah's Huntsman gave his party an Incomplete. He added, "We've got the 50 percent of being the loyal opposition down well while the other half, which is presenting viable policy proposals and real ideas, we have failed at."
Recovery may take a while. Daniels noted that although he is an optimist and doesn't dwell much on the national party's current situation, "when I have heard from people at the national level, I've said, 'Listen, accept the fact that we're going to have to spend some time in the penalty box.' " He contended, "The American people are going to want to know, 'Did you learn any lessons? And do you have some new plans for us?' And that doesn't happen instantly, but it can happen within a two-year window or a four-year window."
For Huntsman, the GOP's revitalization efforts can't start soon enough. "Unlike the [Newt] Gingrich revolution of the early '90s where there was a solid set of policy recommendations that the party could rally around, we don't have that right now," he said. "And because we don't have that, we're trading at an all-time low in terms of public opinion, probably lower than any other time since Watergate."
New presidents enjoy honeymoons, so the members of the out-party always have their work cut out for them. But so far, the Republicans seem to have made relatively little headway in instilling doubts about Obama or rebuilding confidence in their leadership. Most surveys give Obama above-average job-approval ratings for a modern-day president after 100 days in office and give the GOP very low marks.
In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 61 percent of respondents said they trust Obama to do a better job than congressional Republicans in handling the economy; just 24 percent say the reverse. That is the largest advantage for a president over the opposition party since 1991, when President George H.W. Bush was basking in the glow of his success in the Persian Gulf War.
A Gallup Poll conducted for USA Today on April 20-21 found that 66 percent of those surveyed said that Obama has made a sincere effort to work with Republicans in Congress; 30 percent said he has not. Only 38 percent said that Republicans have made a sincere effort to work with Obama; 56 percent said they have not.
Similarly, in a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted April 22-26, a whopping 70 percent of those surveyed said that congressional Republicans were opposing Obama's economic plans "mostly for political reasons," while only 23 percent said they were doing so "because they think [his plans] are bad for the economy."
"Republicans are at a very low ebb," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "Republicans are not seen as having a positive message of what to do."
The Republican governor of Indiana says, "The American people are going to want to know, 'Did you learn any lessons? And do you have some new plans for us?' "--Mitch Daniels
And as for Republicans who complain that Obama and the congressional Democrats are denying them the opportunity to help shape legislation, Daniels suggests with characteristic Midwestern bluntness that they had better just suck it up. "I hear Republicans whining about the Democrats not being bipartisan. You know, 'We weren't included in this. We weren't at the table in that.' Well, get over it." Daniels recommends that Republicans instead explain their own proposals and contrast them with what Democrats are offering. "I don't think the public is ever particularly impressed with process arguments," he said.
The Republican shadow Cabinet is not the only new effort to strengthen the GOP's brand. Republican operatives led by former Bush White House aide Gillespie and GOP pollster Whit Ayres formed a 501(c)(4) research group, Resurgent Republic, to help craft a new image for the party without harkening back to the days of Gingrich and Reagan. "There's a crying need for a creative conservative message for the 21st century," Ayres said. "I still hear too many Republicans say we need to go back to something in the past. We don't need to go back. We need to go forward in the new century with a new message. And that's what we're trying to help promote."
The nonprofit group -- which Ayres said is patterned after the Democracy Corps, a research operation set up by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and consultants James Carville and Paul Begala to help guide their party's strategic thinking -- has an advisory board that includes Barbour, former Sen. George Allen of Virginia, and former Reps. Bill Paxon of New York and Vin Weber of Minnesota, both prominent Washington lobbyists. It boasts intellectual firepower, including such prominent political science professors as Stanford University's David Brady and Washington and Lee's William F. Connelly. And its advisory board also includes some of the party's top pollsters.
"It's an effort to try to get Republicans to think 'addition' not 'subtraction,' " said Ayres, who emphasized that the GOP must start to attract more independents. "We will never rebuild a majority coalition unless we figure out a way to get those people back."
Coming in the midst of these earnest plans to rebrand the GOP, the Specter defection is a reminder of the depth of the party's troubles. One veteran GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly said he doubts that many conservative Republicans appreciate the importance of keeping moderates like Specter in the party.
"If you think being right is more important than having votes, the odds you'll learn anything [from losing Specter] are pretty low," the strategist said. "They did not learn from the [Sen. James] Jeffords episode. They did not learn that running [Sen. Lincoln] Chafee out of the party was a bad idea. Why should they learn from this episode?"
Amy Harder of NationalJournal.com contributed to this report.
This article appears in the May 2, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.