Republicans race to be rebuilder-in-chief

December 14, 2012

It didn't take long after the 2012 election for Republicans to decide they needed a new way forward. Now, several high-profile GOP figures likely to give a 2016 presidential campaign a close look are jockeying for a position at the forefront of the party reboot.

After the disappointment of 2012, leading Republicans sought to swiftly part ways with the rhetoric they believe brought them down in November. A week and a half after Election Day, high-profile governors quickly denounced Mitt Romney’s remark that President Obama won reelection by bestowing “gifts” on certain parts of the electorate. The Republican National Committee this week launched an effort to figure out what went wrong this cycle.


Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is viewed as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. (Danny Johnston -- AP)

Indeed, the call for a new way forward has been loud and clear in the GOP. But some Republicans appear geared at doing more than just acknowledging the need for change; after all, many voices in the GOP are saying as much. Among those being mentioned as potential 2016 contenders, a sprint to emerge as leader, not just follower, appears to be unfolding. 

Consider what three potential 2016ers have been doing and saying recently:

* Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who unequivocally denounced Romney's "gifts" remark, penned an op-ed in Friday's Wall Street Journal calling for birth control to be sold without a prescription to those over 18. The op-ed follows other recent occasions when Jindal has lashed out at his own party's handling of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations and criticized what he described as an anti-intellectual streak. 

* Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered what sounded like a clear, if indirect, repudiation of Romney's "47 percent" percent remark when he declared in his first major post-election speech: “Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters.’ Let’s be really clear: Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American." 

* Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) spoke at the same event and placed a special emphasis on growing the middle class, an idea Obama appeared to have the high ground on during the election. On immigration reform -- an issue some party strategists view as a crucial step in the wake of Romney’s dismal performance among Latino voters this year -- Rubio has signaled a desire to carve out a defined place in the debate over new policies, advocating a piecemeal approach. 

"I believe -- and I've said this repeatedly -- that the issue of kids that are in this country undocumented is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one," Rubio said at a post-election forum last month. "They are more like refugees in that sense than they are like illegal immigration folks. Because they're here through no fault of their own. They're raised their entire life here, and they want to go on with their future."

The Republican brand is damaged and in need of new ideas, in the eyes of many Americans. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week tested the positive and negative ratings for 11 politicians or political institutions. The lowest rated — in terms of positive/negative differential — was the Republican Party, with a 30 percent positive score and a 45 percent negative score. According to a new Pew poll out this week, by a 53 percent to 33 percent margin, the public views the Republican Party, rather than the Democratic Party, as “more extreme in its positions.”

In other words, Republicans are working from a tough baseline. 

But it doesn't mean they can't dig their way out. Imagine a scenario in which the public perception of the Republican brand improves sharply and broadly in the next three to four years. It’s not difficult to envision all of the headlines about how the party had come so far since 2012, and how its message had become more inclusive. Odds are, the names and faces most closely associated with such a transformation would reap immense political capital that would only boost their chances of becoming the next GOP presidential candidate.

Put differently, whoever dispatches the largest dose of tough love for the party and its body of ideas could be very well-positioned for 2016. 

Of course, rhetoric is one thing, and policy is quite another. And only time will tell whether words will translate into a tangible transformation. From their positions in Congress, Rubio and Ryan are well-positioned to spearhead legislation; from Jindal's high-profile perch atop the Republican Governors Association, he can influence policy and public opinion; and when other potential White House hopefuls like former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) speak about reforming education policy, people will listen. 

But there also will likely be dissenting voices in the party. That will add to the degree of difficulty of walking the fine line between blazing new trails for the party, and coming across as a traitor to conservative causes. It's all part of the challenge of running for president, something no one has officially said they are doing yet, but a handful have apparently been thinking about.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Aaron Blake · December 14, 2012