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.

Molly Riley/Reuters
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.

Suddenly, the Republican Party has a little momentum.

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.”

During the campaign, the public perceived the GOP as the party of “no,” and it must now develop a more coherent message on healthcare, education reform, energy, and the environment, he said.

“It was thoroughly depressing to me, as the policy director, to look at polling data that suggested not only did the American public think Republicans weren’t for healthcare reform, they actually think that Republicans didn’t want people to have health insurance,” Holtz-Eakin said.

“That’s just unbelievable,” he continued. “Of course Republicans want Americans to have health insurance. We disagree greatly with Democrats about how to deliver this effectively.”

Jim Pinkerton, an adviser to Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign and veteran of past GOP White Houses, began his comments at the forum by asserting that “on competence, the Republican Party deserved to lose” last November. But he disagrees about the lack of parallels between now and the late 1970s. Pointing to a chart showing an explosion in the money supply in 2008, he predicted massive inflation, and thus, a return to GOP economic principles.

Or time to modernize?

Reihan Salam, a young Republican intellectual, placed himself in the “modernization” camp. He argued that the party’s traditional focus on marginal tax rates misses the point with the middle-income Americans. “What are the barriers for middle-class people who want to get ahead?” he asked, urging the party to develop policies and messages relevant to that question.

One common thread among many Republicans pondering the future of the party is the need to develop a bench of new, young talent.

Mr. Salam, coauthor of the book “Grand New Party,” worries that young political centrists who might well have voted Republican 20 years ago are locking in today as Democrats.
One key, he says, is for the party to welcome new ideas, and for party elites to be more responsive to a changing electorate, rather than the Washington-centered echo-chamber.

At Monday’s Monitor breakfast, Mr. Gingrich suggested that the nucleus of the GOP’s next generation is there and that the new party chairman’s task is to build on that.

“What Steele needs to do is go out and pull together the charismatic next generation – the Paul Ryans, the Bobby Jindals, the Mark Sanfords,” he said, referring to a Wisconsin congressman and the governors of Louisiana and South Carolina. “And there is a pretty good group of smart, next-generation Republicans who will give him an ability to present new solutions, new ideas.”

Staff writer David T. Cook contributed to this report.

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