Earlier this year, the Republican Party’s brightest minds and savviest operators got together to plot a path out of the doldrums of two consecutive presidential losses. They focused on technological upgrades and a change in tone; their one policy recommendation was “embrace and champion” immigration reform.
One hundred days later, the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project autopsy report needs its own post-mortem. The GOP is facing its toughest test yet in the divide between those pushing the party to change and those enabled to make it. And as the Senate appears certain to pass its version of comprehensive immigration reform legislation this week, its chances in the House are only looking slimmer.
“It’s a zigzag path forward,” Ari Fleischer, the former George W. Bush administration spokesman and co-author of the report, told TIME.
On one hand, Republicans have made major advances building political and outreach efforts to women and minority communities. On the other, they stand to block the best chance at immigration reform since the 1980s and to further alienate the very people they want to turn into Republican voters.
On a range of other controversial issues, the setting is even more muddled. The Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday bolsters the case of many party elders that the GOP has to get out of the way of the fast-moving generational issue. But at the same time, social conservatives decried the high court’s decision and proposed a constitutional amendment to define traditional marriage. New abortion restrictions passed the Republican controlled House and a host of statehouses, and commanded nationwide attention Tuesday night when Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis spoke for 12 hours to kill a measure in that chamber.
“I give [RNC Chairman Reince Priebus] an “A” for effort,” said Republican consultant Ana Navarro. “The challenge is the RNC has little, if any, control over elected Republicans.”
The RNC finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. It can’t dictate to House Republican leadership nor undercut its negotiating position, but at the same time the committee’s mission, to elect Republican candidates, is at risk if they don’t pass the legislation.
“Republicans need to embrace and welcome comprehensive immigration reform and if they don’t it will make an uphill fight even harder,” Fleischer said, noting that even if they have been slow to embrace specific legislation they have dialed back their rhetoric from the anti-immigration days of 2006-7, when Bush pushed his own immigration reform effort.
To be sure, the 2012 autopsy did not specify the parameters of an immigration agreement, and on Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner told members of his caucus that the House would devise and pass its own version of immigration reform legislation. But Boehner will find it difficult to sell any immigration reform bill acceptable to Senate Democrats that could pass with the majority of his conference supporting.
Where the RNC has had success is using its bully pulpit to be a “fire extinguisher” when Republicans go off the reservation — a priority for the party after the controversial statements by candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock cost the party two Senate seats last year. Last week, Priebus publicly demanded the resignation of an Illinois county GOP official who called Republican congressional candidate Erika Harold a “street walker.” And earlier this year he spoke out against Michigan national committeeman Dave Agema’s Facebook posting decrying “filthy homosexuals.”
Democrats used the symbolic anniversary as a catch-all for the GOP’s lingering troubles.
“Today’s GOP is the ‘Same Old GOP’ that is dead-set on continuing to pursue the policies of the past that marginalize voters, threaten women’s health, and make it harder for middle class to live the American dream,” DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on a call with reporters Wednesday.
The RNC isn’t denying that on their way back to health they may sometimes seem a little lifeless.
“It’s like someone with a medical problem 100 days after they were diagnosed,” RNC communications director Sean Spicer said of the party’s attempt to recover from the 2012 defeat. “Are we better yet, no, but are we taking serious steps and can you see the tremendous improvement, you bet.”