The Republican Party has started to fight the battle of ideas that its leaders believe will be crucial to winning back the White House in 1996.
At the forefront of the GOP strategy is the National Policy Forum (NPF), a new group that sounds like a cross between a think tank and Ross Perot's grass-roots organization. It will join a growing number of other Republican organizations, most notably Jack Kemp's Empower America, that have sprouted up since the last election.
"It is not enough today for us just to oppose Clinton," GOP chairman Haley Barbour said at a press conference June 21 announcing the formation of the NPF. "We want a party that is centered on ideas and gives people something to be in favor of, something to vote for."
The NPF will tackle that job with $100,000 in seed money from the Republican National Committee and a budget of $4 million for the next year. Veteran GOP operative Michael Baroody will direct the group, supervising 12 to 20 "policy councils" made up of Republican apparatchiks, elected officials, academics, business leaders, and others. Each policy council will focus on a particular area, such as trade or health care.
The NPF's first activity will be to distribute an "in-depth policy questionnaire" to more than 600,000 Republicans next month. Then in the fall, the policy councils will hold hearings around the country to find out what Republicans think about major issues. The results will be compiled in a booklet called, "Listening to America."
Research that comes out of the process may also be published in "Common Sense," a revival of the successful journal of ideas that the GOP published in the late 1970s.
Mr. Barbour stresses that the NPF is not intended to hash out the 1996 party platform. It's meant to provide a forum where grass-roots activists can have a "voice in the national debate," he says. To help draw in independents and Democrats, the NPF will not be affiliated with the Republican Party. It will be a quasi-independent organization that will try to appeal to Mr. Perot's supporters. "I think setting it up separate from the party does make it very clear that everyone's welcome," Barbour says.