Republican leaders have swallowed their pride and accepted that their game plan must change.
Barack Obama thumped them in the presidential election. A recent survey shows that cockroaches are held in higher esteem than the GOP majority House. Rather than fight Democrats on the fiscal cliff, top Republican lawmakers brokered a truce on tax hikes. They then decided to delay the fight over raising the debt limit by four months.
Now the GOP is getting prepped for reconstructive surgery. Winning back the White House and public favor will require a facelift of their message and priorities. Polls show that Republicans must connect with an increasingly diverse America, rather than harp to a loyal base about pet social issues and the evils of taxes and federal spending.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal made this argument in a Thursday speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C.
"We as Republicans have to accept that government number crunching – even conservative number crunching – is not the answer to our nation’s problems,” Jindal said, according to excepts obtained by multiple news outlets. “By obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our country is on the phony economy of Washington, instead of the real economy out here in Charlotte, and Shreveport, and Cheyenne.”
As a state governor whose name routinely surfaces as a presidential contender, Jindal has a natural bias toward an approach that looks beyond Capitol Hill. But Jindal is one of many voices saying the party cannot continue as it has for the previous two years.
“The GOP has a serious problem,” pollster John Zogby told The Fiscal Times. “In many ways the demographics of the country and the major issue—which is not simply economic recovery but moving into the future’s next economy—are issues that just don’t seem to be on their agenda.”
Here are the lessons thus far from the soul-searching:
* Choose battles where you can win – House Speaker John Boehner recognizes that the GOP brand gains little from always blocking Obama. The gridlock has even alienated conservative voters. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month reported that 58 percent of self-identified Republicans viewed Congress negatively.
So Boehner plans to be more targeted in his battles. Rather than let all of the Bush-era tax rates expire this year, he voted for the fiscal cliff compromise that shielded families with incomes below $450,000 from a higher tax burden. The fiscal cliff—he knew—was a loser for the party.
The Ohio congressman claims that nothing less than the fate of the party is at stake.
"These next couple of weeks, next couple of months -- frankly, the next 20 months are going to be a very difficult period for us," Boehner said in a Wednesday speech to the conservative Ripon Society. "Where’s the ground that we fight on? Where’s the ground that we retreat on? Where are the smart fights? Where are the dumb fights that we have to stay away from?"
* Listen to your governors – But even Boehner had a misstep in recent weeks by initially failing to have a vote on a relief package for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. The slight infuriated New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "In our hour of desperate need, we've been left waiting for help six times longer than the victims of Katrina with no end in sight," he fumed. "Sixty-six days and counting, shame on you. Shame on Congress."
Christie noted that at some point Congress needs to put politics aside and deal with the responsibility of governance. The keynote speaker at last year’s Republican National Convention got his vote on the Sandy relief package, yet the incident showed a highly divided party.
And unlike Congress, Christie commands respect. His approval rating hit an all-time high of 74 percent—and 56 percent among Democrats, according to survey released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University.
* Get your supporters to vote – Obama won with an aggressive, data-driven turnout effort. The Republicans cannot succeed unless they build out a superior platform for bringing their voters to the polls. Thin margins gave Obama wins in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.
“They really did a phenomenal job on technology and turnout, and they should get credit for that,” Republican vice presidential nominee and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan told reporters at a Wednesday breakfast organized by The Wall Street Journal. “That was really, you know, unprecedented, how well they did on that. We have to – we have to – we have to learn that too. We have to fix that.”
*Work with Democrats – Republicans have a big incentive to cooperate with Democrats on immigration reform. At the Wednesday breakfast, Ryan said he saw that as the prime opportunity for cooperating with the other side of the aisle. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—another potential contender for 2016—has also talked up a rewrite of immigration law.
Harsh conservative rhetoric on undocumented workers has caused Latino voters to abandon the Republicans. The pollster Zogby found in his post-election survey that just 22 percent of Hispanics identified themselves as conservatives, compared with 40 percent in previous surveys.
“The conservative brand and the GOP brand have really been hurt in these communities,” Zogby said. “Let’s include Latinos, and obviously African-Americans, but also young people and the creative class – that’s one problem for the Republicans.”
* Go beyond your base – Republicans cannot win by appealing only to the party faithful. There just aren’t enough registered voters who adhere to a strict conservative dogma. The GOP has been insulated from this because congressional districts have been drawn to ensure they don’t really need to appeal to moderates, said Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist.
“They need to remember the nation's a lot bigger, broader, and more diverse than the 234 House districts they hold,” Sabato said. “After all, they lost the total U.S. House vote to the Democrats by 1.4 million last November. Only gerrymandering and the inefficient concentration of Democratic votes in minority areas saved them.” Sabato added that the GOP currently tends to glorify the nation’s past, without considering what the majority wants for the future.
“The country simply isn't where they are on abortion, gay rights and marriage, immigration, and the like,” Sabato said. “Too often it looks like Republicans are trying to bring back the '50s--and on occasion I'm not sure whether it is the 1950s or the 1850s.”