Change They Can Believe In?

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

RNC chairman Reince Priebus speaking at the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

If you follow national politics at all, you’re familiar with the Republican Party’s current predicament. Not only has the party lost the popular vote in four of the last five presidential elections, but the public turned against the GOP in two consecutive wave elections: 2006 and 2008. The Republican Party's veto power in Congress and its substantive power in the states has everything to do with the Tea Party rebellion of 2010, which—in light of last year’s elections—looks more and more like an aberration. It's unpopular with a wide swath of Americans, and is associated in many minds with virulent strains of homophobia, nativism, sexism, and racial prejudice.

In an effort to change perceptions and win new voters, national GOP officials have embarked on a plan of recovery and reform. The Republican National Committee commissioned an in-depth look at the party’s challenges, in order to craft and chart a new path for the party and its candidates. The RNC released its report this morning, and at a hundred pages—the product of contacts and interviews with 52,000 voters, party consultants, and elected officials—it’s a hefty document. More importantly, as NBC News notes, “it calls for drastic changes to almost every major element of the modern Republican Party.”

The GOP wants to shift from the “Grand Old Party” to the “Growth and Opportunity Party,” and to reach that goal, it makes several prescriptions, including increased outreach to women, young voters, and minorities, with a particular focus on Latinos. “We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” says the report, “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

The report asks Republicans to back away from their hardline approach to same-sex marriage—“If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out”—to better appeal to the economic aspirations of ordinary people—“Instead of connecting with voters’ concerns, we too often sound like bookkeepers”—to improve their relationship with women and promote more women candidates—“Republicans need to make a better effort at listening to female voters”—and to make serious inroads into nonwhite communities—“If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them, and show our sincerity.”

There’s much, much more than this, but as an outline, it looks good. Republicans are saying (some of) the right things, and hopefully, they’ll begin to make the right moves. But it will take great effort to build a culture of respect toward voters who don’t normally support the GOP, and in the meantime, national party leaders will have to deal with the fact that they can’t control all Republicans at all times. Indeed, a large chunk of the party isn’t even theirs to control. American political parties are large and amorphous, with only an appearance of hierarchy. The Democratic Party of Virginia is a different beast than the Democratic Party of Florida, despite their occasionally shared goals. Moreover, national party leaders have no real control over how voters interact with local and state parties—the Democratic National Committee can’t set guidelines for state legislators and local officials.

The RNC’s reform agenda might help as it tries to rebuild its national reputation, but the GOP is still at the mercy of its more anonymous representatives: The South Carolina lawmaker who admits “It is good politics to oppose the black guy in the White House right now, especially for the Republican Party”; the Florida Lieutenant Governor who resigns after allegations of rampant corruption; the Texas Republican who accuses Planned Parenthood of tricking teens into sex and then profiting on their abortions; and the legislatures around the country that have limited reproductive rights, selectively imposed voter identification requirements, and slashed spending on the poor and vulnerable.

On its own, this doesn’t necessarily harm the GOP brand—politicians aren’t known for their cool thinking or general competence—but when combined with a national party that shows similar traits and holds similar views, it’s disastrous. The RNC’s inventory of the GOP is a good first step in trying to fix this problem by changing the Republican Party’s culture to fit the concerns of a broader swath of Americans.

At the same time, it’s hard to see how this will work—at all—without a similar change in policy. Americans haven’t just rejected the Republican Party because it's unfriendly and unwelcoming—they’ve rejected it because it doesn’t seem to offer solutions to the nation’s problems. There needs to be something after “Repeal Obamacare,” and Republicans don’t seem to have it. And while they can try to build it, that kind of change is incredibly hard to execute. Given the GOP’s constituency—older white Americans—and its continued commitment to unsuccessful anti-government policies, it’s hard to imagine the Republican Party has either the strength or will to make the genuine transformation it needs.

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