The Washington Post

As Republicans ponder 2012 defeat, party’s philosophy hangs in the balance

The Green Grove Gardens banquet hall was decked out for Christmas, but the atmosphere at the Franklin County Republicans’ annual Eisenhower dinner here was anything but cheery.

As the evening’s speaker, former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 presidential contender Rick Santorum, made a meet-and-greet round of the tables Tuesday, one woman implored him to “get rid of Obamacare.”

“We had a chance,” Santorum told her. “It was called the last election.”

So much for comfort and joy.

Not quite six weeks after Republicans lost a presidential contest that many of them thought was in the bag, the shock has begun to wear off. The recriminations, on the other hand, are likely to go on for quite some time.

And the tough work — figuring out what needs fixing — has only just begun.

Some Republicans still argue that nothing is fundamentally wrong with the party. Or nothing that a better get-out-the-vote operation, a field of more appealing candidates, and more outreach to Hispanics and women wouldn’t repair.

But others are coming to the conclusion that the problem goes deeper than that, to the party’s philosophy and policies, which are getting further out of step with the nation.

“Republicans have lost a majority of the popular vote in five out of the last six elections,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. “There’s a message there. The Republicans need a new business model, and a new product for the new century. It’s not just a problem of one candidate or one campaign.”

That gloomy assessment is shared even by some of the GOP’s most ardent ideological warriors.

“We have extraordinarily real and deep problems,” former House speaker and 2012 presidential contender Newt Gingrich said in an interview. “We’re at a serious point, not a trivial point.”

The latest test of the weakened party’s philosophy is playing out now, in negotiations to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”

Nothing is more central to GOP self-identity than its drive to cut taxes. Conservative columnist Robert Novak used to remark that Republicans were put on this Earth for precisely that purpose.

The problem for them now is that the American public feels otherwise, at least when it comes to the breaks for the wealthy that were enacted under George W. Bush, which Obama promised to end if he were reelected.

“It may be that a majority of the public, having heard both sides of the argument, believes that upper-income people are undertaxed,” Peter Wehner, who was a top adviser in Bush’s White House, wrote in Commentary magazine. “If that’s the case, it would be a significant error for conservatives to assume we simply need to make the same arguments, only louder, with more passion, and with more charts and graphs.”

His column was headlined: “What If Conservatives Have Lost the Argument?”

One of the most-heated arguments at the moment is the one that is raging among Republicans themselves. In the postmortems following Mitt Romney’s defeat, there are factions that argue that the party should have presented a sharper contrast by demanding ideological purity, and others that say it doomed its nominee by doing exactly that.

“What we got was a weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party. The presidential loss is unequivocally on them,” Tea Party Patriots national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement released just moments after the television networks called the race for President Obama on election night.

That prompted this retort from pundit Ann Coulter: “The party’s problem now runs more along the lines of moron showoffs, trying to impress tea partyers like Jenny Beth Martin.”

Many say the party will not start winning again until it starts looking for who to bring in, rather than who to exclude.

“The party needs to fundamentally retool our thinking. And to me, the biggest problem we have is our dismal primaries, and the litmus testing that goes on there, and all the money and all the groups that are there to divide Republicans from Republicans,” said Joe Straus, speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

Last Monday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus launched what he promised will be a top-to-bottom review, which he called the Growth and Opportunity Project, that would include “mechanics, data, messaging, our coalition groups and our outreach.” But he insisted the party’s basic philosophy remains a sound one.

“If you look at the polling, 35 percent of the American people consider themselves conservative and 20 percent consider themselves liberal,” Priebus said. “We have natural advantages as far as the principles of the Republican Party — limited government and freedom and opportunity.”

But the polls also say that on the specifics of nearly every major policy question, Republicans are positioned against the tide of public opinion — on taxing the rich and maintaining entitlement programs, on same-sex marriage, on whether climate change is real and manmade, on whether illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship.

“We need to find a way to make our core principles make sense to voters who are part of a changing demographic,” said Ying Ma, 37, a Chinese immigrant and conservative activist in California. “One of the reasons all of these government goodies are so appealing is people don’t believe they can make it any other way.”

All that is why recent weeks have seen some of the party’s rising stars road-testing more compassionate themes that could have a broader appeal.

At a Dec. 4 dinner, 2012 vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, said both parties “tend to divide Americans into our voters and their voters. Let’s be really clear: Republicans must steer very clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and the anxieties of every American.” It was an unsubtle contrast with running mate Romney’s now-infamous suggestions that Obama supporters were government-dependent freeloaders.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaking at the same event, struck a similar theme.

Even more striking are some of the recent comments by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, newly installed as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and frequently mentioned as a 2016 presidential contender.

When Romney after the election blamed his loss on the “gifts” that Obama had offered young people, African Americans and Hispanics, Jindal blasted the 2012 standard-bearer as “absolutely wrong. . . . We need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American dream, which is to be in the middle class.”

On Tuesday, Jindal gave an address at the Brookings Institution that blasted teachers unions — a familiar GOP target — but also noted: “It is completely dishonest to pretend today that America provides equal opportunity in education. We do not. And if you say that we do, you are lying.”

On Friday, an op-ed by Jindal appeared in the Wall Street Journal advocating selling birth control pills over the counter, as a means of taking “contraception out of the political arena.”

If there is a model for what confronts Republicans today, it may well be the self-doubt and battles of the Democrats in the late 1980s after three presidential defeats in a row.

In 1989, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute wrote a controversial paper diagnosing the Democrats’ ills. Much of what they wrote could apply to what Republicans are going through today: The Democrats were captive of “liberal fundamentalism.” They blamed their candidates for lacking charisma. They believed that their answer was matching the GOP’s technological edge (in those days, direct mail) and its get-out-the-vote operation. They were losing the young. Their values were not in line with the country’s.

“Once Bill Clinton ran in 1992, we actually had a political center,” recalled Kamarck, who is a lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “But creating a new Democratic brand was a process that took several years, and also some luck.”

In Clinton’s case, that luck included the decision of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a liberal icon, not to run for the 1992 Democratic nomination, and businessman Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy splitting the vote in November.

In Greencastle, local party Chairman Dwight Weidman expressed confidence that his party will also find its way back. But first, Weidman said, “there’s going to be a really tough discussion in the Republican Party.”

Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

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