Republicans Are Celebrating Too Soon

A year after the great Republican rebranding exercise, the GOP still has a lot of work to do if it wants to win a presidential.

Balloons drop after Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accepted the nomination during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
March 20, 2014, 2:33 p.m.

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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