As case studies go, this one was blistering. The Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project report, a scathing post-mortem of why the Republican party lost the 2012 election and what it must do to rebuild itself, examined all the ways in which the Romney campaign and the GOP went wrong. There were failures in communicating the party’s message. Flaws in its organizational structure. Key voters it failed to reach.
Yet for all the sound advice the report provides for a way forward (namely, taking a more inclusive approach to reaching that broader range of voters), it is lacking one detail: exactly who will lead such change. Until a leader emerges who can make the report’s proposals more than just words on a page, the autopsy will do little to bridge the differences between conservatives looking to widen the party’s appeal and those looking to deepen its commitment to the far right.
That doesn’t mean the report doesn’t address leadership at all. It recommends more bottom-up field organization for the RNC and campaigns (“The best campaigns and organizations hire senior people and empower them at the state and local level”). It offers Republican governors as models of the sort of leaders it wants at the national level (“Republican governors, conservatives at their core, have campaigned and governed in a manner that is inclusive and appealing”). And it emphasizes the leadership role the RNC must take in minimizing redundancies and limiting turf battles between the RNC and fellow conservative organizations.
Still, such ideas will only go so far without someone leading the charge. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is not that person. Neither is Sarah Palin, who took aim at her party’s establishment with one-liners at CPAC, an annual conservative conference in Washington, about the need to “furlough the consultants” and criticism about “re-branding the GOP instead of restoring the trust of the American people.”
It’s hard to tell who could, in fact, bring the change the party so desperately needs. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of the most buzzed-about names for 2016, wasn’t even invited to CPAC. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) may be ready to lead a change and carve his own libertarian path to 2016, but the party’s brass have been quick to criticize him as well. Meanwhile Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), seen as both a favorite of the old guard and of the newer tea party camp, seems reticent to take on the mantle of change. “We don’t need a new idea,” he said at CPAC. “The idea is called America, and it still works.”
The GOP’s report is an admirable effort in self-assessment, even if it remains cautious about the core of its challenges. Too many organizations deny their way into irrelevance rather than admitting there’s a problem, particularly in such stark terms. But all the changes to data gathering, organizational structure and messaging — however critical these may be — will do little if there’s not a credible, inclusive leader ready to implement them.