Republican Party charts course for reinvention: Will it work?

Focus groups told a Republican task force the party is 'out of touch' and full of 'stuffy old men.' Its 98-page plan, out Monday, contains 219 proposals for reform. But it mostly steers clear of policy.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus gestures while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Monday. The Republican Party endorsed reform in a new plan, out Monday.

No more happy talk. The Republican National Committee (RNC) has laid bare its pain following last fall’s presidential election defeat. And on Monday, it put out a 98-page plan to modernize its operations and get back in the business of talking to all Americans – not just those who already agree with the party.

The self-diagnosis is pretty harsh.

“There’s no one reason we lost,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus said in a speech Monday at the National Press Club. “Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren’t inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital. And our primary and debate process needed improvement.”

Focus groups, Mr. Priebus said, described the party as “narrow-minded,” “out of touch,” and “stuffy old men.”

“We have to do a lot better job and do a lot more to make up ground in minority communities, with women and young voters,” he added.

Notably, the 219 recommendations in the RNC report barely touched on policy. One exception is the call to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” as a way to get minority communities – especially Hispanics, who gave GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney only 27 percent of their votes – to listen to the party’s message on economic opportunity and education.

But the report, noting that the RNC does not decide policy, omits discussion of the crux of the matter: whether reform will include a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally. Some leading Republicans – including Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a top prospect for the 2016 presidential race – have embraced a path to citizenship, while others remain opposed, which could complicate efforts at passing legislation.

The need for better party outreach to women, gays, and young voters also figures prominently in the report. When asked at the press club how the GOP can do better at attracting fiscally conservative gays and women, Priebus turned immediately to the announcement last week by a prominent Republican senator who announced his support for gay marriage.

“I think Senator [Rob] Portman [of Ohio] made some pretty big inroads last week,” Priebus said.

The challenge for Republicans will be in uplifting the message, tone, and outreach of its individual candidates. Political analyst Charlie Cook suggests that the latest round of congressional redistricting – which made a lot of Republican-held seats safer for the GOP by “quarantining” Democrats in Democratic-held districts – could end up being “a curse disguised as a blessing.” Last fall, the Republicans retained their House majority even as they lost a majority of votes cast for House members, when viewed collectively across the nation.

“In the process of quarantining Democrats, Republicans effectively purged millions of minority voters from their own districts, and that should raise a warning flag,” Mr. Cook wrote in National Journal. “By drawing themselves into safe, lily-white strongholds, have Republicans inadvertently boxed themselves into an alternate universe that bears little resemblance to the rest of the country?”

In other words, Republican candidates who don’t have many minorities living in their districts may feel less compelled to speak to their concerns.

But in addressing the party’s demographic woes, the RNC plan doesn’t leave it up to the individual candidates or local parties to fix the problem. Priebus laid out steps the RNC will take aimed at boosting party outreach, such as: setting up advisory councils for Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian Americans; establishing “swearing-in citizenship teams” to introduce new citizens to the GOP after naturalization ceremonies; and recruiting more minorities and women to run for office at all levels.

Priebus also addressed the mechanics of the last election cycle. The primaries dragged on well into the spring, delaying the eventual nominee, Mr. Romney, from pivoting toward his general-election campaign against President Obama. The number of primary debates skyrocketed – 20 in all, up from seven in 1988. All the Obama campaign had to do was sit back and take notes as Republicans leveled one devastating attack after another on the front-runner, Romney. Candidates also hurt themselves and the party with numerous gaffes at the debates.

The days of late summer GOP conventions also appear to be over. Romney was not legally allowed to spend any general election funds until he had been formally nominated, and he was effectively out of money for about two months. Mr. Obama, who faced no primary challenger, was able to level attacks during the summer that went unanswered.

“No more August conventions,” Priebus said.

Ultimately, though, the number of debates and timing of the convention probably pale in importance to the substance of policy and how it is communicated. Priebus made clear that one need not agree with the Republican Party on every issue to vote Republican, referring to President Reagan’s “80-20 rule” – that if you agree with the Republicans on 80 percent of the issue, it’s OK to disagree on the other 20 percent.

The question is, which are the “20 percent” issues. Clearly, gay rights is one, given Priebus’s praise for Senator Portman’s announcement. He called gay rights a “gateway” issue for younger voters, in particular – an issue that needs to be overcome before voters will listen to other parts of the GOP message. Already, for many otherwise-conservative young Evangelicals, the idea of gay marriage is not a big deal.

Abortion, which wasn’t mentioned in the report, is a trickier matter. The social conservative wing of the Republican Party isn’t about to age out of its opposition to abortion rights the way it appears to be doing on gay marriage. And so the issues related to reproductive rights that alienated women voters from Republican candidates last November – such as access to birth control under "Obamacare" – are likely to be around for a while.

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