Thirteen months before his first presidential election, George W. Bush was on a California campaign swing with a single reporter. The news in Washington was a House GOP plan to slash federal spending, and his spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, encouraged me to ask Bush about it.
“We shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor,” the Texas governor told me. And so began Bush's successful rebranding of the Republican Party: He separated himself from unpopular congressional Republicans and rode “compassionate conservatism” to the White House.
Iraq and Hurricane Katrina undermined Bush’s credibility early in his second term, and the war paved way for the election of Barack Obama. Now Republicans are at a crossroads more perilous than what Bush addressed in 1999 — for a litany of reasons, none more significant than the demographic tsunami threatening to destroy the GOP.
In an extraordinarily honest “autopsy” of the 2012 elections, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus boils down the party’s problems to messaging, demographics, campaign mechanics, technology, and the political calendar. He also points to policy and tonal changes that sound like compassionate conservatism.
“Public perception of the party is at record lows,” the report says. “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
And yet, almost immediately, Priebus backpedaled on one policy (immigration) and drew withering criticism on another (gay rights), raising the question: Is the GOP still more conservative than compassionate? It may be too soon to rebrand this troubled party.
"This is not my report," Priebus inexplicably told reporters shortly after releasing it.
Five of the the report's most notable positions:
Gay rights might be right: “Already, there is generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many young voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place to be.” Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin points out that while the passage does not explicitly endorse gay marriage, “it acknowledged a variety of viewpoints is essential.” The gay-rights nudge came as Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, and Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, endorsed gay marriage — the latest in a growing line of politicians acknowledging the public’s increasing support. Predictably, conservatives balked. "The idea that a major political party must accept the practice of homosexuality as normal so as to remain relevant will prove the contrary and lead to disaster," John Horvat II, a Catholic scholar, told The Associated Press.
Immigration is a no-brainer: “ ... We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” Bush’s inroads with Hispanic voters were squandered by anti-immigration conservatives who blocked reforms during his presidency. But Priebus later refused to discuss specifics such as whether illegal immigrants should be given a pathway to citizenship, according to AP. "I think it's healthy for our party to have this discussion, but the details of that, and what that legislation looks like, is not something that the RNC chair does," he said, distancing himself from the issue.
The House GOP is not the GOP: Like Bush, the Priebus report tries to distance the party’s reputation from Congress. “The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.” The report cites policy successes of several GOP governors, including Nathan Deal of Georgia, who saved the state’s popular scholarship program from bankruptcy. The report also praises New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a conservative condemned by some right-wing partisans because he worked with President Obama on hurricane recovery.
Inclusion beats exclusion. “Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism,” the report says at one point. Priebus said later, “Our 80 percent friend is not our 20 percent enemy.” You can’t help but wonder if those lines were aimed at House Republicans who seem averse to a budget deal with Obama that would include tax increases, spending cuts, and entitlement reform.
“Sister Souljah” on Wall Street? Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign created the “Sister Souljah moment,” when a politician’s repudiation of an extremist person, group, or statement changes the public’s view of a party. Clinton condemned a rapper. Bush chastised the House GOP budget. Could the next GOP leader find a straw man on Wall Street? “We have to blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance and attack corporate welfare. We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.”
In the 1980s, the Democratic Party was much like today’s GOP: Beholden to an ossified and out-of-touch (liberal) base that drove moderate voters into the arms of the rival party. It took an innovative party chairman (Ron Brown), a supreme candidate (Bill Clinton) and transforming policies to move the party toward the middle.
Clinton did it in the 1990s. Bush did it a decade later. Priebus’s report is an important blueprint for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nominee — one who has enough guts, skills, and imagination to create a 21st-century Republican Party. Does he or she exist?