The dust had barely settled on the Republican Party’s drubbing in November when party leaders called for a through examination of what went wrong. “We’ve got to give our political organization a very serious proctology exam,” said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor. “We need to look everywhere.” The GOP had just lost the White House and dropped seats in the House and Senate. If the first step to fixing the problem is admitting you have one, Republicans took that first step with alacrity.
Nearly three months later, however, the great Republican reckoning hasn’t gotten much further. It’s not that they aren’t trying. The Republican National Committee set up a ethnically diverse working group of party elders to solicit input and devise a plan for the future. The House GOP held a seminar on how to communicate with minorities and women, groups that spurned them en masse in November. Pollsters were summoned to advise members to stop talking about rape. Strategists wielded stats underlining the demographic changes that could consign the party to permanent-minority status if it can’t find a way to broaden its base. All of these are important steps. But for all the bracing talk, the GOP is still ignoring its deepest liability: not its tone, but the substance of its policies.
That was apparent from a pair of buzzy speeches delivered at the RNC‘s winter meeting, at a hotel in Charlotte, N.C., where the party’s brain trust spent three days last week mulling how to refashion itself for the future. One was delivered by Reince Priebus, the RNC chairman, who was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term despite the defeat in November. It’s worth reading his remarks in full, but the gist was simple. The Republican Party’s beliefs aren’t the problem, Priebus said. Its messaging is the problem. “We can stand by our timeless principles—and articulate them in ways that are modern,” he said, “relevant to our time and relatable to the majority of voters. And that, I believe, is how we’ll achieve a Republican renewal. That’s how we’ll grow. That’s how we’ll win.” He wants to abandon the laser focus on battleground states and compete everywhere, bringing the re-tooled Republican message into communities that rejected it last fall.
(MORE: Joe Klein on Obama’s Inaugural)
This seems a reasonable strategy as far as it goes, but the only specific innovations Priebus cited for cultivating new supporters were “Skype-based training sessions and Google hangouts on campaign strategy, fundraising, door-to-door advocacy, and digital tools.” This is like aspiring to battle Barack Obama’s stable of tech whizzes with an Apple IIGS and a land line. The rest of the speech, which news outlets hailed as a “major overhaul” and a “plan for renewal,” was a nutrient-free series of platitudes. There was no call for substantive change, only tonal tweaks, because Priebus, like nearly all Republican bigwigs, doesn’t believe the GOP needs to change its policies. “The good news is our principles are sound,” he said. “We stand for opportunity and for liberty. Freedom is always a new idea—an ever-fresh, revolutionary idea.”
The second important speech — “dynamite,” raved the conservative Washington Examiner — was delivered by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of a handful of national figures with his sights already set on 2016. Since November, as potential candidates jockey to carve out their niches in a crowded primary, Jindal has tried to position himself as a straight-shooting reformer. “We must stop being the stupid party,” he said, not for the first time. “It’s time for a new Republican party that talks like adults.”
The admonition grabbed headlines because it sounds edgy, but most of the speech was crib-safe, rife with time-tested Washington-bashing and paeans to free markets and small government. In a perfect world, he muses, “We would replace most of its bureaucracy with a handful of good websites.” (Perhaps Skype and Google.) He urged Republicans to end “the obsession with zeroes” and coalesce around issues that matter in “the real economy out here in Charlotte, and Shreveport, and Cheyenne.”
Like Priebus, Jindal focuses on tone and tactics. Tone and tactics were indeed problems for Republicans in 2012. Remarks about “self-deportation” and “legitimate rape” and the “47%” who “depend on government” were harmful. But they were symptoms of the real problem, which was a set of philosophical beliefs that produced policies most Americans don’t like.
In 2012, the Republican Party was hurt by its positions on immigration, abortion, gay rights, contraception, climate change and social-spending programs. Fidelity to these positions will only cripple it further over time, as the U.S. becomes more socially liberal and less white. Moneyed conservative outside groups and a GOP base that has lurched to the right lately are prepared to punish dissidents. Which is why it is no surprise that even now, in this period of reflection on the party’s failures, the GOP is letting its policies go largely unexamined. (Immigration policy is a notable exception.)
Instead, Republicans want to modernize their infrastructure, re-write the electoral college rule book in their favor, modulate their tone. “We need to be a happy party,” Newt Gingrich said. The GOP should be “an exciting party that smiles,” Priebus said.
The Republican Party did not lose in November because of its tone, and it did not lose because of tactics, although it got beat on both counts. It lost because a majority of Americans rejected their views on key topics. Until Republicans come to grips with that, renewal will remain a long way off.