Pizza, dog food, and the state of the Republican Party

WaPo congressional guru Paul Kane's e-mails are the stuff of legend. Detailed, funny and insightful, they are a download of a brain you just can't re-create.  In hopes of sharing some of PK's brain with Fix readers, we occasionally coax/goad/cajole him into an e-mail exchange with us and then print it in this space -- edited only for grammar. Our last e-mail exchange focuses on House Speaker John Boehner, his relationship with the tea party wing of the GOP and whether the best metaphor for the current state of the Republican Party is pizza or dog food.

FIX:  We saw John Boehner unbound at the end of last year — telling it how it is to the tea party. Is that a sign of things to come for how he tries to lead the fractious conference in 2014? Or am I mistakenly assuming that there is a plan?

PK:  I think it’s very much up in the air as to what direction Boehner will go. That Bulworth moment was great theater, but there were several key caveats that led to that rare moment of clarity, which won’t be easily duplicated this year. First, many rank-and-file Republicans still feel they were led blind into an alley over the government shutdown in October, a strategy heavily promoted by Heritage Action. Second, in December those groups were attacking the work of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whose stature inside the GOP caucus has only grown in the last 15 months despite being on the losing 2012 ticket; attacking Ryan -- whose first political experience was volunteering on Boehner’s reelection campaign as a college student at Miami of Ohio -- was akin to firing a shot at the favored son. So Boehner’s defense of Ryan won him points. And third, largely overlooked that day, is the fact that Boehner had a cold. He must’ve wiped his nose three or four times during that presser; he was more cantankerous, I believe, because he was under the weather!

So, those are all the caveats that led up to the Boehner outburst. What comes next? Hard to know. Our friend Jonathan Weisman at the NYT noted in a story Monday that [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor is downplaying expectations, the same day I had a similar story in The Post saying the pushes for tax reform and immigration-border security overhaul are losing steam.


Pizza. By James M Thresher for TWP

Much of the 2014 agenda will be hashed out at the end of the month at the annual House GOP retreat, this one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Last year’s retreat was dominated by Domino’s talk -- yes, the pizza company. The questions were whether Republicans needed to merely change the box that the pizza is served in, altering the marketing and sales pitch but leaving the “pizza” (i.e., their policy agenda) the same; or, did they need to radically overhaul the content of the “pizza” to be more appealing to more people.

What say you to that question?

FIX: You have the pizza analogy, I have the dog food one. Mine goes like this: No matter how great the ad and marketing campaign is, if the dog doesn't like the dog food, it's not going to sell.


Dog, looking for dog food. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The 2012 election proved that the the public doesn't like what Republicans are selling. (Let's say it's pizza rather than dog food for the sake of the readers.)  I actually think most Republicans agree that it's not the marketing campaign, it's the pizza. But, where they disagree is how to change the recipe in order to make it more appetizing. (I will torture and kill this metaphor before it's all over.)

Some believe they need to make their policy agenda more conservative, more true to "first principles." Those people believe they will have been out of the White House for eight straight years because they nominated "moderates" like Mitt Romney and John McCain to run against Obama. The other cooks -- see what I did there? -- think the party needs to change its recipe on things like immigration (to win over Hispanic voters) and social issues (to win over moderates).

But, here's the thing: No matter which side you agree with, it's hard to see what specific ingredients should be added. There is very little in the way of new ideas coming out of the Republican party at the moment — and that's a major problem.

What I don't know: Where do the new ideas come from? And when? Does the party have to wait until we have a GOP nominee in 2016?

PK:  I'll disagree slightly here, because I think there are plenty of ideas -- there are a bunch of recipes, proposals, thoughts, ideas -- but no consensus among Republicans to support those ideas. Paul Ryan is working on some Jack Kemp-ian stuff that apes the old enterprise zones in inner cities; Cantor, taking a cue from Boehner's old proposals, is pushing school choice; Marco Rubio and Mike Lee are working some issues together.

Yet there's no real agreement on these issues. A year ago, Cantor, coming off the "pizza box" debate, had a modest set of proposals under the "Making Life Work" banner. These were not big-bang proposals. One was built around making sure that those with preexisting health conditions would not get hurt by the transition into Obamacare. Cantor scheduled a vote in late April, but then pulled the bill because it lacked GOP support, and it hasn't been seen since. It took nine months to get enough GOP support for him to pass a bill that increased funding to fight cancer in children -- nine months! -- and the bill was deficit-neutral, fully paid for with a good-government offset by nixing federal funding of political conventions.

In early December, I spent a week talking to rank-and-file Rs, and I was stunned how aggressive they wanted leadership to be in the 2014 agenda. To a man, from [Devin] Nunes to [Tom] Massie, they want a bold health-care plan as a true alternative to Obamacare. Yet talk to leadership, and their reaction came down to: It took nine months to unify House Rs around fighting cancer in children; how long will it take to unify the caucus around a bold health-care plan?

So, as one GOP consultant told me a year ago, the Domino's analogy missed a key point: Republicans don't even have a pizza yet. They have a box, but there's no pizza. They have ingredients sitting inside the fridge, a couple different sauces, a bunch of cheese, pepperoni and sausage and mushrooms. But they can't even agree enough to take those ingredients out of the fridge and make a pizza.

Sausage and onion pizza from DC Slices in Franklin Park, DC.(Photo by Joe Yonan The Washington Post)
Republicans don't have this right now. (Photo by Joe Yonan The Washington Post)

With that in mind, that's why you hear talk in some quarters of trying to lower expectations and making 2014 a referendum on Obama, win the Senate majority and then hope that their 2016 nominee can unify the party around picking the sort of pizza they want to serve.

FIX: Yup.

The point I keep coming back to is that Republicans have to be very wary of repeating their 2010 vs. 2012 mistake in 2014/2016.  After the 2010 midterms — and all the gains the GOP made — lots of people in the party assumed that the problems of the 2006 and 2008 elections were anomalies, not the new working order of politics. Instead of grasping the reality that they won in 2010 because people didn't like what Obama was doing, they thought it was an affirmation of their agenda. Wrongo. The 2012 presidential proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the party had a major brand problem with women, Hispanics and young voters that wasn't solved by simply saying, "Hey, we're not Obama!"

I think there is a danger that Republicans make that mistake again. By all measures, 2014 should be a good election for them. The history of second-term midterms is great for the party out of the White House, and the raw numbers suggest that the House should be a relatively easy hold and control of the Senate is up for grabs. But, even if Republicans expand their majority in the House and win back the Senate in November, I don't think they should assume their brand problems are fixed. They won't be. Midterms are base battles, and the GOP base hates Obamacare. But Obamacare alone won't win them back the White House.

My last question for you then is this: Does John Boehner get that? And what, if anything, does he feel like he can or should do to remedy it?

PK: Oh, I think Boehner gets that, I think Cantor gets that, I think [Mitch] McConnell and [John] Cornyn among Senate Rs get that. They get it, they want to broaden the appeal of the party. They know that they need to do it on certain issues and particularly with certain voting blocs (non-Cuban Latinos, Asians, under 35-year-olds).

The reality, however, is they have a limited capacity to implement those changes. This is an era of diffuse power structures in the political parties, and nowhere is that more evident than under the Capitol dome. Not to beat a dead horse, but it took nine months to get enough unity among House Rs to support fighting cancer in children!!!!

So yes, these congressional GOP leaders are aware that they need to expand the party appeal, but they also are increasingly aware of how limited their power is in implementing those changes. They hope/believe that the 2016 nominating process will bring someone who can both provide more of those ideas and can unify enough people behind those ideas so that they actually have a pizza to sell and that the pizza can appeal to more than just older white men.

Until then, GOP leaders are gonna do a lot of managing the chaos, I think, trying to minimize the self-inflicted wounds and hoping Obama/Democrats continue to fall on their own faces.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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