GOP Fights to Rebrand the Party of No

Republican leaders left a party confab in Los Angeles last week in agreement that they can no longer be “the party of no.” They were less clear on what to say "yes" to.

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Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 15, 2013.

After several days of debating how to restore their party’s brand, Republican leaders left a party confab in Los Angeles last week in agreement that they can no longer be “the party of no.” But they were less clear on what to say “yes” to.

“To win, we need to be the party of solutions,” says Nebraska GOP chairman JL Spray. Now that Republicans have pointed out problems on issues like immigration, student loans, and the budget, he adds: “Let’s start fixing some things.”

While GOP officials at the party’s spring meeting in Hollywood had plenty of ideas for changing their public rhetoric, however, positive new policy ideas were in shorter supply.

The gathering’s purpose, said RNC officials who recently released a much-publicized autopsy of the 2012 election, was largely to begin reshaping negative perceptions of the GOP. At the meeting, the Republican National Committee’s 168 members sat through upbeat sessions with titles like “How to say what we mean and show that we care,” and “Winning the Women’s vote.”

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Those sessions were all the more important, Republicans say, because party officials keep making the wrong kinds of headlines. In the past month, Republican officials repudiated Alask Rep. Don Young for using the slur “wetback,” and Michigan national committeeman Dave Agema for posting on Facebook a story that decries “filthy” homosexuals.

“The lack of relationships in these communities is getting in the way of us talking about the issues,” said one RNC official here this week.

Hoping to turn the page, in recent months top GOP lawmakers like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senator Marco Rubio have given major speeches on what the GOP calls its “opportunity agenda” — tackling education reform, college affordability, and endemic poverty. Last week, Senator Rand Paul visited historically black Howard University to contest the image of Republicans as insensitive towards minorities.

So far, though, those speeches haven’t turned into legislative priorities. Of late Republicans have mostly debated the impact of the budget sequester and hit President Barack Obama’s annual budget plan as out of balance. And while the party committee devoted two of twelve resolutions approved in Los Angeles to reaffirming “traditional marriage,” the opportunity planks were absent.

“Republicans have done a better job of not antagonizing voters, but we still have a ways to go in making them want to vote for us,” complained one RNC member.

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A statement from the RNC focused on the party’s image woes, which officials believe is a perquisite to putting forward their own policy proposals. “We have a perception problem and Chairman [Reince] Priebus is committed to highlighting these Republican reforms so more Americans know Republicans are making important headway in states and building a permanent grassroots organization so we can begin developing the relationships needed to make policy and election inroads as a party,” said press secretary Kirsten Kukowski.

Some Republicans worry the policy agenda remains too thin, thanks in part to a near-singular focus on debt and deficits over the past two years, and poorly communicated to regular Americans.

“We don’t talk about kitchen table issues,” said former Michigan national committeeman Saul Anuzis, describing the party’s challenge. “We spend too much time talking about the philosophy of smaller government — and that’s not what voters care about.”

“We have to make an argument that fiscal responsibility is a part of a plan to help all Americans; rather than talking about spending cuts or balanced budgets because that’s what we “stand” for,” said former Romney policy adviser Lanhee Chen, who will be helping the National Republican Senatorial Committee work with candidates to develop policy agendas in the upcoming 2014 cycle. “The biggest mistake we’ve made is to sound like the party of austerity for austerity’s sake.”

The RNC points to the accomplishments of Republican governors as models for the party at large — including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s Medicaid reform efforts and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s efforts to promote teacher accountability. They also point to former President George W. Bush’s pre-9/11 agenda of compassionate conservatism as a helpful model. Bush was elected in 2000 on a platform featuring education reform, tax cuts and expanded Medicare benefits.

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Bush, however, offered new goodies to voters at a time of budget surpluses. Today’s Republicans enjoy no such luxury, severely limiting the initiatives they can offer to voters. After his election defeat, Mitt Romney complained that Hispanic voters had rewarded Barack Obama for expensive “gifts” he’d given them in the form of government benefits like Obamacare.

Republicans could make a policy mark this year if they strike a bipartisan deal with Democrats on immigration reform. The prominent role of Rubio in the immigration debate could put a clear GOP stamp on any final product. The GOP’s recent autopsy report called a clear policy shift on immigration critical to allowing a dialogue with the nation’s fast-growing Latino population. (Meanwhile, some party operatives — particularly younger ones — have urged similar thinking on gay marriage as a means of connecting with liberal young voters, so far to no avail.)

Whatever the specific agenda, Republicans say, it has to offer something more than dour austerity. Only reforms that promise to directly help people can put the party on a path to success in 2014 and 2016. That, says, Spray, is all the more true at a time when world events don’t give the GOP an edge: “That’s the only way we’ve ever won the White House when national security wasn’t on the front burner.”

As they departed Los Angeles, many RNC members agreed that the question for the GOP isn’t just how to stop alienating voters. It’s how to start winning them back over. But exactly what they’ll be offering still looks unclear.

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