E.J. Dionne Jr.
E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion Writer

Are Republicans rebranding or rethinking?

E.J. Dionne Jr.

Writes about politics in a twice-a-week column and on the PostPartisan blog.

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GOP Chairman Reince Priebus rebuilds party with smiles.

GOP Chairman Reince Priebus rebuilds party with smiles.

But there’s a big difference between rebranding and pursuing a different approach to governing.

The good news is that some Republicans have decided that the party moved too far to the right and are backing off long-standing positions on tax increases, guns and immigration. Their new flexibility, combined with President Obama’s new post-election aggressiveness, is producing a quiet revolution in Washington. The place is becoming less dysfunctional.

Congress has already passed a substantial tax increase, Republicans avoided a debt ceiling fight, and the ice is breaking on guns and immigration.

The mixed news: A lot of the rebranding efforts are superficial yet nonetheless reflect an awareness that the party has been asking the wrong questions, talking about the wrong issues and limiting the range of voters it’s been addressing.

This is why Cantor’s speech was more important than the policies he outlined, which were primarily conservative retreads. His intervention proved that Obama and progressives are changing the terms of the debate, much as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.

Cantor wasn’t making the case for smaller government or tax cuts for the “job creators.” He was asking what government could do for the middle class — “to provide relief to so many millions of Americans who just want their life to work again.”

No wonder Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the Democrats’ most subtle strategists, jumped at the chance to praise Cantor for taking “the first step toward finding common ground in agreeing on the problem you are trying to solve.” If the debate is about who will be nicer to business or who will cut taxes, Republicans win. What Schumer understands is that if the issue is providing relief for the middle class (and for workers, immigrants and low-income children), Republicans are competing over questions on which progressives have the advantage.

The bad news: In some states where Republicans control all the levers of power, they are rushing ahead with astonishingly right-wing programs to eviscerate government while shifting the tax burden toward the middle class and the poor and away from the wealthy. In trying to build the Koch brothers’ dystopias, they are turning states in laboratories of reaction.

As Neil King Jr. and Mark Peters reported in a Wall Street Journal article on the “Red State model,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has slashed both income taxes and spending. This drew fire from moderate and moderately conservative Republican legislators, whom he then helped purge in primaries. Jindal is talking about ending Louisiana’s personal and corporate income taxes and replacing the revenue with sales tax increases — a stunningly naked transfer of resources from the poor and the middle class to the rich.

This deeply anti-majoritarian, anti-populist approach explains the really bad news: Some Republicans show signs of not worrying about winning majorities at all. Gerrymandering helped their party win a majority in the House (no longer so representative) in November while losing the popular vote overall by nearly 1.4 million votes. Some are trying to rig the electoral college in a way that would have let Mitt Romney win the presidency even as he lost by about 5 million popular votes.

And they are willing to use the Senate’s arcane rules and right-wing courts in tandem to foil the policy wishes of a majority of Congress and the president — witness the unprecented U.S. Court of Appeals ruling voiding Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. The president took this course because intransigent Republican senators blocked the nominations. There should be a greater outcry against such an anti-democratic power play.

What’s the overall balance sheet? Level Republican heads seem to be pushing against the electoral college rigging effort. The “Red State model” is likely to take hold in only a few states — and may provoke a backlash. The larger lesson may be the one Cantor offered: Republicans are slowly realizing that the nation’s priorities are not the GOP’s traditional priorities. If Republicans really do start asking better questions, they will come up with better — and less extreme — answers.

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