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GOP has new face, but brand has far to go

Republicans elect new chairman, Michael Steele, but are split on the future direction of the party.

By Staff writer / February 2, 2009

New Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele took a question during a news conference in Washington on Friday. The Republican Party is looking for a new direction after a string of devastating defeats.

Molly Riley/Reuters

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Washington

Suddenly, the Republican Party has a little momentum.

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The national committee has elected its first African-American chairman, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, putting a new face on a party eager to diversify its ranks. The party is feeling unified after House Republicans unanimously rejected the Democrats’ economic stimulus plan last week. And the Obama administration has taken hits on ethics. In the latest, cabinet nominee Tom Daschle was caught owing $128,000 in back taxes.

But, loyalists agree, the hard work of “rebranding” the GOP has just begun, after two dismal election cycles that saw the party lose both houses of Congress and the White House.

In four years, the Republicans have lost 49 House seats and 14 Senate seats. Some Republicans, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, see opportunity in the party’s travails.

“At some point this spring, you will see a genuine conversation in the country,” Mr. Gingrich told a Monitor breakfast Monday. “And if Steele is effective, he will help lead that conversation in a way that allows Republicans to do surprisingly well in 2010.”

Return to ‘Reagan playbook’?

The state of debate among Republicans breaks down into two basic groups. One argues for a return to the “Reagan playbook,” that is, lower taxes, pledges to shrink government, strong defense, and conservative social values. The other camp argues that the world has changed dramatically since the late 1970s, when the Reagan revolution took hold, and that, while the party must keep its core economic principles, it must do more to modernize.
“We need to be more appealing and open to a broader demographic,” says Doug Holtz-Eakin, chief economic adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign.

He spoke last week at a forum on the GOP’s future sponsored by the New America Foundation.

Mr. Holtz-Eakin wasn’t referring just to the party’s inability to attract racial and ethnic minorities last November. He pointed to defeats across a range of demographic groupings: Senator McCain lost with every age group except voters 65 and older, the only female demographic he won was married women without children, the campaign lost at every level of education, and McCain lost every region of the country but the South.

“Republicans need a message on how they’re going to help the middle class,” Holtz-Eakin said. “And we need to have a message toward urban areas.”

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