Do Republicans need a “Sister Souljah” moment?

February 28, 2013

Republicans are a party divided at the moment.  There is an establishment wing of the party and, for lack of a better descriptor, a tea party wing of the party. While the two sides often get along, there are clear differences in tone and approach when it comes to issues like gay marriage and immigration among others.


Sister Souljah

To win back the White House in 2016, Republicans must find a way to address that rift -- and do so in a way that allows them to unite behind a candidate who can broaden the party's reach well beyond what Mitt Romney and John McCain have achieved in recent elections.

There are any number of ways the party could try to do that but the most intriguing is broached by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, two longtime Republican hands, in a terrific piece on the future of the party in the latest edition of Commentary magazine.

Gerson and Wehner note that Republicans today find themselves where Democrats were in the early 1990s when Bill Clinton emerged on the scene -- repeatedly on the wrong side of presidential elections and struggling to (re)define itself in the eyes of the American public.

While Clinton did any number of things to re-imagine the party, one of the most important, Gerson and Wehner argue, was to confront the controversial (and, at the time, popular) rapper Sister Souljah.

Write the duo:

"[A] powerful political signal was sent in the late spring of 1992 when the rap artist Sister Souljah, who had made racially charged remarks about killing white people, spoke at a convention of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, then still a strong force within the Democratic Party.

A day later, Clinton took both Sister Souljah and her host to task:  'If you took the words “white” and “black” and reversed them, you might think David Duke [a white supremacist state legislator from Louisiana] was giving that speech…. We have an obligation, all of us, to call attention to prejudice whenever we see it.'

Almost immediately, the polls registered an improvement in the public’s attitude toward Clinton as a potential leader. The concept of 'a Sister Souljah moment'—that is, a point at which a candidate stands up to the extreme elements in his own party—entered the lexicon of American politics."

Gerson and Wehner leave it there -- choosing not to follow the idea of whether Republicans need a "Sister Souljah" moment of their own today. It's too intriguing a question for us to pass up though.

The first thing to know is that Republicans have been publicly mulling the need for a high profile rebuke to their tea party wing for some time. In the spring of 2012, many Republicans called on Romney, then the presumptive presidential nominee, to condemn conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh for his comments about Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke. Romney's response -- "It’s not the language I would have used" -- left many establishment Republicans cold. That summer, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, an outspoken moderate in the party, said that Romney had missed "some moments where I thought he had a freebie" to stand up to the GOP base.

In the wake of the 2012 election, which Romney lost far more convincingly than many observers -- the Fix included -- thought he would, the need for a "Sister Souljah" moment seems even more urgent.  New polling done by the Pew Research Center shows that six in ten Americans -- including more than one in three self-identified Republicans -- believe that the GOP is out of touch with average Americans, and a majority (52 percent) of the country think the party is "too extreme."

The quickest way to address that problem is to have a major Republican figure smack down the tea party on a big issue.  And, therein lies the problem. The only way a "Sister Souljah" moment actually works is if the candidate doing it is a) a respected and relevant national figure and b) someone with some real skin in the game.

Take Romney and how he reacted to the Fluke controversy. A pragmatic centrist at heart, Romney almost certainly would have liked to slam Limbaugh for his comments about Fluke. But, at the time the controversy erupted, he was still trying to fend off a primary challenge from his ideological right in the former of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and made the calculation that making an enemy of Limbaugh was too much of a risk.

To date, the Republicans  who have been willing to speak out against the tea party simply aren't the sort of figures who command enough respect within the party to make their warnings matter.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who ran for president in 2012, has been the most outspoken voice urging his party to stand up to elements of its base. But, Huntsman's resume -- he served as U.S. Ambassador to China in the Obama Administration -- coupled with his (at best) lukewarm support for Romney in the general election mean that his words don't carry much weight.

There's only a handful of Republicans -- most of them are among the great mentioned when it comes to the 2016 race -- who could make a "Sister Souljah" moment stick.

At the top of that list is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush whose last name, conservative credentials and status as a bigfoot in the party would give him the sort of standing necessary to offer a meaningful rebuke to the party base. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is also on that list and is trying to do a sort of mini-Souljah with his push for an immigration reform plan that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal seemed to dabble in a bit of Souljah-ism in a speech to the Republican National Committee last month in which he called on the party to "recalibrate the compass of conservatism."

No one within the party, however, has stepped forward to make clear that the GOP as currently constituted isn't a majority party in the country and, unless change is made, won't be one in 2016 and beyond either. Again, Gerson and Wehner put it well: "Republicans, in short, have a winning message for an electorate that no longer exists."

Simply standing up to certain elements of the GOP base on, say, immigration, contraception or gay marriage won't solve Republicans' problems, of course.  (As we have documented in this space over the past few months, the GOP has a major demographic problem in addition to its brand issues.)

But, a "Sister Souljah" moment from the right -- and that part is critically important -- Republican leader could well do for the GOP what Clinton did for his side more than two decades ago: Send a symbolic signal that the status quo is no longer acceptable and that the options are to either adapt or to die.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Ed O'Keefe · February 28, 2013