Party May Need Heart Transplant
Like all smart political parties, Republicans have been spending some time looking in the mirror after last November’s dispiriting election results. In a report called the Growth and Opportunity Project, Republican leaders studied what went wrong last year and offer up some general ideas about improving the party’s electoral prospects in the future.
The report includes focus group feedback that described the Republican brand in terms that included “scary,” “narrow-minded,” “out of touch” — a party of “stuffy old men.” OK, sounds like nowhere to go but up from here.
But the heart of the Republican problem could be, well, heart. Too often Republican candidates are seen as negative and driven purely by economic concerns, especially cutting government spending. Those behind the report believe the party has to do more to counter the perception that Republicans simply don’t care about people.
A Need to Reach Out
The report also described Republicans as being in an “ideological cul-de-sac” and said the party must find a way to appeal to groups beyond older white males. The recommendations include reaching out to minority voters — African-American, Hispanic and Asian-Americans—and calls on Republicans to back comprehensive immigration reform. But whether that should lead to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country is left open. And obviously that is an issue that will be divisive for Republicans in Congress in the months to come.
Republicans are likely to concede that African-Americans will remain largely in the Democratic Party column. They would like to focus on winning over some Hispanics and Asian-American voters. Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority group and census projections show they could make up 10 percent of the population by mid-century when whites are projected to fall into minority status.
But outspoken conservatives and Republican activists known as the Tea Party immediately lashed out at the Republican self-analysis. The Tea Party Patriots released a statement that said voters don’t need an “autopsy” from the Republican National Committee to know that the party failed to promote Tea Party principles and lost because of it. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh said the party was “totally bamboozled” and he was part of a chorus of conservative firebrands who saw the party document as a retreat from core principles.
Even in the aftermath of last November’s election, Republicans were divided as to why they had lost. Some accepted the conventional wisdom that the party had strayed too far to the right and that Mitt Romney appeared to be held hostage by the conservative and Tea Party wing of the party.
But many conservatives slammed the Romney campaign for abandoning core conservative positions, like deporting illegal immigrants, and have vowed to never again nominate “an establishment Republican” to lead the party. If the various factions within the party can’t agree on the cause of defeat, how can they be expected to agree on a set of solutions and then implement them?
Conservatives Debate the Way Forward
The recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) confirmed what most experts already knew. The Republican Party is in a state of disarray at the moment and how it all gets resolved is far from certain. What is clear is that there is no shortage of voices eager to chime in on what ails the Grand Old Party and how to fix it. The question is: are they even listening to each other?
Among the stars at the recent CPAC conference were Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Paul bested Rubio in the fun to watch but meaningless straw poll of potential presidential contenders for 2016. That suggests an appetite among conservatives for fresh faces as they consider their options for the next election. Palin’s main role seemed to be one of providing comic relief through snappy one-liners. Maybe she’s had so many people laughing at her in recent years she’s figured it’s better to have them laughing with you.
On the other hand, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain did not fare as well at CPAC. If Bush is considering a presidential run in 2016, he realizes he will have to get at least a passing grade from this conservative group in order to placate the right.
I said if he’s running. I’m still not convinced Bush has what politicians like to call the “fire in the belly” to go through the gauntlet of primaries, caucuses and debates necessary to win the party nomination. The Washington Times reported that former Arizona Representative J.D. Hayworth actually heckled Bush during his CPAC speech on issues including tax increases and immigration reform, areas where Bush has indicated he may be willing to go further than most conservatives.
As for Senator McCain, he came under fire from Senator Cruz, among others, for labeling some younger conservatives as “wacko birds.” McCain later apologized for the comment, but some boos peppered his speech before CPAC and he and Jeb Bush are clearly seen by a younger generation of conservative activists as part of a Republican establishment that is out of touch with where the party is heading.
The Man Who Wasn’t There
That would be Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. Christie was famously not invited to the CPAC meeting but still managed to finish fourth in the straw poll ballot behind Paul, Rubio and former senator Rick Santorum.
Christie is out of favor with many hard core conservatives because they believe he helped President Obama win a second term in November after the two men appeared together and toured the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coast. Despite this perceived faux pas, Christie is enormously popular in his home state, with a recent Quinnipiac poll showing his approval rating at 74 percent.
The fact is, potential candidates like Christie and Jeb Bush still represent the Republican’s best hopes for appealing to moderate and swing voters in 2016. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have their champions to be sure. But they seem to have little to offer moderates looking for a Republican alternative in a matchup against, say, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden three years from now.