The reaction to the Republican National Committee’s after-action report has been telling. Anti-immigration activists don’t like the suggestion that comprehensive reform is needed, even if the content of that reform is left entirely blank in its report. In other words, whatever might lessen the barrier to minorities they oppose. Okey-dokey.
Then there are the grouchy conservatives who don’t want to suggest to voters that the party or its candidates care about them. Because the one thing the party should never do is relate to ordinary voters, right?
Frankly, some of these critics seem to have gotten the report wrong.
I spoke with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus by phone a short while ago. He clarified that he is not, for example, taking a position on immigration. The report calls for comprehensive immigration reform but says nothing about the form of that reform. (That could be a borders-only plan and delayed green-card status with no citizenship, frankly.) He said, “It’s not appropriate for the party chairman to pick and choose what provision of what law is going to be included or excluded.” But the issue is “important [enough] for us to be a part of the debate.”
In focus groups and meetings around the country, Priebus said, he learned that the Mitt Romney phrase “self-deportation” was the biggest turn-off for Hispanics. He called it a terrible “unforced error,” saying, “It was the most hurtful thing in the country [for] Hispanics.”
“When something like this happens and you don’t have a year-round operation on the ground with the Hispanic community,” Priebus said, a comment like that “makes it even harder.”
As for the fuss about making the Republican Party more relatable, Priebus told me, “We’re winning everything imaginable in off years. The governors are still going strong. We’re winning the war in issue-driven races.” However, with a wider electorate, the math arguments and the policy debates don’t strike home; as a result, Republicans have been losing presidential elections. “The reason in part is that we are not relating to people at an emotional level.”
Priebus pointed to the Bushes. “One reason the Bush family does well is they are obsessed — obsessed in a good way — with school choice,” an issue that hits home with all parents. Priebus rejected the idea that there is an effort to make the GOP less conservative. Rather, the idea is simple: “We need to relate economic issues to people.”
The report’s proposals on the presidential debates have gotten a lot of attention. He said, “I think we need to have a reasonable number of debates, not 23 and not 5. We [the RNC] should have a major say in picking debate partners and moderators.” He was blunt that the goal has to be to prevent the debates from becoming “a three-ring circus.” As for the moderators, he said gently, “I do think that when you open yourself to media moderators whose job it is to be creating news, and do it 22 times, you’re making yourself a sitting duck on the pond.”
Priebus went on to argue that campaign finance law is topsy-turvy: The national parties have the biggest restrictions and the most transparency, while independent groups have neither. “We’re at least putting political parties on equal footing with outside groups,” he said.
Priebus plans to going to roll out the report, present it in different settings, begin hiring the personnel outlined in the report and continue to “refine” it, he tells me. In fact, most of what is in the report is common sense (e.g., explain how conservatism is best for voters) or tracks with overwhelming public opinion.
Today’s Post-ABC poll shows that 58 percent of Americans now favor gay marriage, including 52 percent of Republicans under 50. So is it that controversial to say that a variety of viewpoints is acceptable? (An RNC official cracks, “I don’t want to kick Rob Portman to the curb.”) In other words, the GOP has to allow enough flexibility in its message to gain the widest possible support without sacrificing its core values (e.g. freedom).
From my vantage point, the notion that any of this would be controversial among Republicans tells you exactly what the problem is in the party and where it is coming from. Sure, the Republican Party can refuse to relate to voters and tell Hispanics they are going to kick them out of the country. But then it simply won’t win presidential elections, nor a lot of Senate races. No wonder some on the left are so disparaging of the report; if followed, it might make the GOP a lot more competitive nationally.