When a political party loses two presidential elections in a row, it goes through some combination of soul-searching and finger-pointing. There are those who believe the party needs to rethink its policies and those who believe the party suffers from insufficient purity. Those who look at tactical moves (Clint Eastwood’s empty chair) or personalities (Romney was too stiff) say defeat lies in bad campaigning, not in bad ideas. The new report from the Republican National Committee splits the difference. It calls for spending $10 million on minority outreach and building a digital infrastructure to resemble the Obama juggernaut, which makes sense--although the unintentionally funny idea of “hackathons” to engage tech entrepreneurs is only a bit less awkward than the late Sen. Ted Stevens’s description of the Internet as a series of tubes.
To be fair, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is at least trying to start a conversation and, as the head of all the party, he can’t really pick sides between Jon Huntsman and Sen. Ted Cruz, who told the CPAC audience over the weekend that conservatives are now on the march thanks to Rand Paul’s drone-a-buster and Americans' discovery that sequestration isn’t so bad.
Political science may offer some help to both the Cruz and Huntsman views, but not as much to Priebus's efforts to heal the GOP through process. Samuel Popkin, the political scientist who often appears in The Atlantic, is the author of an important book called The Reasoning Voter. His thesis is that for all the money spent in campaigns on information and disinformation, polls and ads, most voters basically know what they’re getting in the two candidates and make a rational decision. They aren't deceived. They have absorbed the philosophies of the candidates, know their positions on the most important issues, even if they can’t recite their position papers. The communication skills of a nominee, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, matter much less than we think. That's why Americans voted for sourpusses like Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
If parties win because of ideas, then the Priebus plan, with its quotidian emphasis on process, like choosing a nominee early, won’t work. Indeed, the history of trying to jury-rig the primary process almost never works. In the 1980s, Super Tuesday, with its concentration of Southern primaries, was meant to produce a more moderate nominee, but it didn’t work. Divisive races like Hillary Rodham Clinton versus Barack Obama ‘08 probably helped the party.
Process is fine, but if ideas matter more, then there’s an interesting debate. The Democrats clearly benefited in the '80s and '90s from the work of the Democratic Leadership Council, which developed a slew of policy positions that helped its former chairman, Bill Clinton, in 1992. By rethinking policy orthodoxy on everything from the death penalty to welfare reform, he was a much more compelling candidate than Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale. Liberals would raise important questions about these policies later, but their efficacy in the campaign wasn’t in doubt.
So far, there’s no Republican group with the power of the DLC of the '90s. There are gestures and hints on immigration reform and guns but not a sustained font of ideas.
Would that work? I don’t know. Priebus's idea that an openness on immigration reform might bring Hispanics into the GOP fold is undercut by data showing Hispanics are drawn to the Democratic Party for many more reasons than immigration.
Party chairmen get paid to think about structure and process and messaging and things that political reporters love. But ideas are going to make the GOP competitive in presidential elections. No report is going to change that.