Admitting the problem is always the first step in any rehabilitation process. And in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, Republicans across the country were doing just that. Among the GOP’s elected officials, strategists, and activists, there was widespread acknowledgment that the Republican Party suffered from a disease that would not quickly be cured.
Nowhere was this admission clearer than inside the Republican National Committee, where Chairman Reince Priebus appointed a five-person task force — the Growth and Opportunity Project — to identify the party’s foremost problems and explore potential solutions. As this RNC autopsy was underway, we at National Journal conducted our own post-mortem, speaking with several members of that RNC panel, along with dozens more Republicans nationwide. The result was “A 12-Step Program for the Republican Party,” prescribing a road to rehabilitation for the GOP.
This week the RNC celebrated the one-year anniversary of its Growth and Opportunity Project’s report. Priebus and his panelists boasted that many of the party’s most urgent shortcomings were addressed over the past 12 months, especially those relating to “ground game” and campaign infrastructure. Perhaps. But on many of the political prescriptions suggested by top Republicans in our report, the party has sputtered. So, rather than evaluate GOP headway according to the RNC’s own metrics, what follows is National Journal‘s 2014 progress report of the Republican Party, based on our 2013 prescriptions:
Step 2: Go Outside Your Comfort Zone
Prescription: Engage nontraditional GOP voters (especially minorities and young people).
Progress: B- “¦ Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, told us that Republicans need to be going into urban communities and pitching their ideas, despite knowing those efforts won’t pay off immediately. Paul has been a leader in this regard, speaking at black colleges and far-left campuses, as well as opening an RNC office in Detroit. Additionally, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has been touring cities to promote school choice. But too few Republicans are following their lead. Others, such as Rep. Paul Ryan, have made commendable efforts. But Ryan’s “inarticulate” comments about the work ethic among black men showed why some Republicans are reticent to engage new voting blocs.
Step 3: Speak Their Language
Prescription: Present a softer message, and smarter policy solutions, to the Hispanic community.
Progress: D+ “¦ This was priority No. 1 among most Republicans after Romney won just 27 percent of Hispanics in 2012. Party leaders called for Republicans to tone down their immigration rhetoric, and moreover, offer policy solutions beyond “self-deportation.” Efforts on both fronts have been inconsistent. Senate Republicans, including Marco Rubio, helped craft a comprehensive bill that would create a path to legalization for many undocumented immigrants. But House Republicans balked, insisting that borders must be demonstrably secure before legalization is discussed. That policy inertia is unhelpful but not fatal; what’s more damaging is commentary, like that from Rep. Steve King about “calves the size of cantaloupes,” that continues to paint Republicans as cold and uncaring about Hispanic voters.
Step 4: Go Big on Education
Prescription: Draw a sharp contrast between parties on the issue of school choice.
Progress: D “¦ Republicans remain convinced that education is the X factor that could improve its standings among crucial demographics — women and urban residents especially — who worry about the health of the nation’s public-education system. “No other issue even comes close in its potential for the Republican Party,” former Rep. Artur Davis, a defector from the Democratic Party, told us. Education speaks to the broader theme of “upward mobility,” added Henry Barbour, an RNC panelist. Yet in the past year we’ve seen little effort — at least on the national stage — to make this part of the national dialogue. Sen. Ted Cruz, a potential 2016 candidate, told Iowans recently that “school choice is the civil-rights issue of the 21st century.” Romney said something eerily similar in 2012, yet failed to force a debate on the topic. Republicans would be wise to learn from Romney’s failure.
Step 5: Let the Libertarian Flag Fly
Prescription: Expand the party by allowing libertarian voices to attract new, young voters.
Progress: A “¦ To the chagrin of traditional defense hawks such as Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mike Rogers, the fresh voices of Paul and Rep. Justin Amash are redefining the Republican brand — at least on security issues — in front of our very eyes. Paul’s 13-hour filibuster challenging the use of drones on domestic soil captured the suspicion that young Americans feel toward the federal government; and Amash’s amendment to restrict bulk data collection by the National Security Agency nearly won on the House floor despite opposition from the White House, the Pentagon, and the leadership of both parties.
Step 6: Bring Back the Bootstraps
Prescription: Emphasize opportunity for average Americans, not handouts for big businesses.
Progress: C- “¦ There was added urgency to this imperative when media narratives dictated that 2014’s political climate would be driven by “income inequality.” Republicans, despite taking heat for resisting another extension to unemployment insurance, are making genuine efforts to rebrand themselves. Many conservatives are talking boldly about ending “corporate welfare” through the tax code and even redirecting some funding toward job training programs. Ryan has been visiting poor areas and floating antipoverty initiatives. Other House Republicans, meanwhile, have worked with the Heritage Foundation to revisit welfare reforms aimed at pushing new people into the workforce. Still, these words haven’t been backed by consistent, concrete legislative action to promote social mobility.
Step 7: Just Say Yes
Prescription: Position Republicans as proactive, rather than reactive, on the issue of health care.
Progress: D- “¦ Republicans promised an alternative to the Affordable Care Act upon seizing the House majority in 2011. Three years later, no such plan has reached the House floor — just a bunch of votes to repeal Obamacare. This has spawned tremendous tension within the House GOP, where conservative members, tired of Obama’s claim that they lack policy solutions, have produced comprehensive plans that never receive a vote. Cantor has promised Republicans a vote this year on a health care bill, but it’s likely to be a hodgepodge of provisions rather than a full-scale replacement. GOP leadership, especially House Speaker John Boehner, seems content to make 2014 a referendum on Obamacare. That might work short-term, but Republicans won’t have lasting success without a vision of their own.
Step 8: Leave the Labs Alone
Prescription: Allow state parties, and governors, to lead the Republican resurgence.
Progress: D “¦ “The rebuilding of the party has to begin out in the states,” Kevin Madden, who worked both Romney presidential campaigns, told us after the 2012 election. While the GOP no longer has the concrete policy examples it did years ago (Mitch Daniels’s privatization efforts in Indiana, Jeb Bush’s education reforms in Florida), there are nonetheless some effective blueprints being laid. Two of the GOP’s successful battleground governors, Ohio’s John Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder, have achieved conservative results by straddling the center on other policy fights. Both allowed Medicaid expansion in their states, for example, which afforded them political capital to push tax cuts and balanced budgets. It’s a difficult model for Republicans on the Hill to follow, however, because they simply don’t trust Obama — and therefore are unwilling to adopt this give-and-take approach. Meanwhile, other states have demonstrated what policy fights are worth pursuing (Wisconsin’s entitlement reforms) and which aren’t (Arizona’s immigration enforcement and “antigay” bills).
Step 9: Let it Die!
Prescription: Stop the polarizing, divisive rhetoric on social issues.
Progress: C “¦ Daniels was vilified for suggesting a “truce” on social issues in 2010, but his approach was vindicated in 2012 after Republicans lost winnable races due to clumsy comments about rape and abortion. 2013 was a struggle, as Republicans walked the fine line between respectfully opposing the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage and offending people while doing so. More recently, comments by former Gov. Mike Huckabee about contraception suggest some in the GOP will never learn their lesson. Still, there are signs that many Republicans recognize the political necessity of toning it down. Speakers at this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, for example, made hardly any mention of gay marriage — something that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
Step 10: Don’t Go There
Prescription: End the GOP’s infatuation with adventurism abroad.
Progress: A- “¦ From Libya to Syria to Ukraine, Republicans have signaled a new approach to foreign policy — one that breaks sharply from the interventionist years of George W. Bush. Chalk it up to a war-weary electorate, or ongoing deficit wars, or just reliable opposition to anything that empowers Obama. Whatever the cause, most Republicans desire a decidedly lighter footprint on the global stage. Even some of the most hawkish Republicans — those always quick to antagonize Obama’s foreign policy — have stopped short of advocating troops on the ground, opting instead for arming rebel groups. That distinction alone speaks to a shift occurring inside a party that has dependably prescribed military intervention during moments of global tumult over the past half-century. Still, the durability of this noninterventionist mood could be tested by Russia’s 21st-century display of aggression.
Step 11: Give Power to the People
Prescription: Make energy independence a cornerstone of Republicanism.
Progress: B+ “¦ Sustained appeals for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline have effectively framed the energy debate in Washington — Republicans want more exploration, Democrats want more regulation. That’s a winning contrast for the GOP, as evidenced by some vulnerable Senate Democrats voicing their displeasure with Obama’s unwillingness to approve the project. Additionally, GOP attempts to highlight Obama’s “war on coal” have helped cement this dichotomy in the Rust Belt. “Drill, baby, drill” may have elicited sneers from elites in both parties, but it resonates with Americans paying close to $4 a gallon for gas. With natural gas emerging as the next frontier of energy exploration, don’t expect Republicans to tone down their energy offensive anytime soon.
Step 12: Build It, and They Will Come
Prescription: Promote infrastructure as a mechanism for job creation.
Progress: C- “¦ There are select cases of Republicans fighting to fund new infrastructure projects. (Sen. Mitch McConnell slipped money into last year’s government spending bill for a dam on the Ohio River; Gov. Snyder has brokered an agreement to build another bridge between Detroit and Canada.) But by and large, Republicans continue to shy away from spending money on bridges and roads, much less bike paths and light transit. That’s unfortunate, not just because such projects appeal to the voters they are desperate to reach (city dwellers, especially young ones) but also because they can deliver an economic shot in the arm desperately needed in some slow-to-recover cities and states.
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