The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In defense of the GOP’s “cosmetic” makeover

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Since November, a steady stream of Republicans have offered a “reform” agenda for the GOP. In speeches and interviews, up-and-coming Republicans like Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and Paul Ryan have urged the party to craft solutions and build new appeal to ordinary Americans.

Of course, neither figure has proposed actual reform, or a departure from the arch-conservative policies that defined Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency. With the possible exception of immigration, they’ve pushed new rhetoric for the same policies, in an attempt to navigate between real political constraints (the GOP base) and a real need for change.

Yesterday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor joined the fray with a policy speech that presented existing GOP policies on education, immigration, and entitlements, but placed them under a new “make life easier” banner, as if it somehow made a difference.

The press, to its credit, has been fairly dismissive of this new marketing. NBC News called it a “cosmetic makeover,” while National Journal dismissed it as a “charm offensive.”

The broader problem with these attempts to rebrand the Republican Party is that it’s hard to craft a governing agenda when your ideology is based in hostility to government. Over the last four years, the GOP has embraced an ideology which sees government as wasteful, inefficient, and incapable of doing anything for ordinary Americans. If the Republican Party has left itself any space for embracing constructive governing solutions, it’s hard to find.

With that said, we shouldn’t be too dismissive. If the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, then Republican Party is beginning a long process of rehabilitation. Yes, the GOP hasn’t pushed real reform of its policies and ideas, but it does recognize the degree to which Americans want solutions from government. Cantor’s call for pragmatism is a crack in the wall — a recognition that the GOP can’t survive as an anti-government insurgency. Put another way, this is the Republican Party’s first step toward developing an agenda for functional government. It remains to be seen if it will take a second.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.