Time for change

It has been a big week in Republican soul searching, and Republicans seeking answers to the past and for the future must read Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner's diagnosis and prescription "How To Save The Republican Party," in the March edition of Commentary. It's all there. For those still in denial about everything being a "messaging problem," if this doesn't wake you, you might be helpless. 

As Tea Party types — and pitifully Newt Gingrich, too — have taken aim at Karl Rove for his new push to challenge insurgent candidates who can't win general elections by supporting more electable, "establishment" ones, it is critical for those Republicans not stuck in corners and factions to think beyond internecine battles over candidates, donor turf and personalities. Policies, and their shrewd promotion, are the only means by which the Republican Party can move past representing a minority of the country to once again becoming a majority party.

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In Gerson and Wehner's assessment, which examines elections between 1968-1988 and then between 1992-2012, there is much bad news. The two assert the party's problems are systemic and continue on a 20-year trend line, that they are not "superficial or transient." Yet, in their tough, smart and gutsy essay, Wehner and Gerson look forward, providing a rescue plan the GOP. In proposing a "mobility agenda" the two urge the party to address wage stagnation, the loss of blue-collar jobs, the rising costs of healthcare and higher education, and to demonstrate a "commitment to the common good." Opposing corporate welfare and supporting the break-up of big banks are two ideas likely to produce consensus, but the bitter medicine also includes an embrace of immigration reform, gay marriage and the science behind climate change as well.

Without naming names, Wehner and Gerson pointedly criticize characterizations made in a recent National Review op-ed titled "A Pointless Amnesty" about emerging Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform, in which editors wrote that Latinos are "disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock. Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies. Low-income households headed by single mothers and dependent upon some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey."

Wehner and Gerson's response: "Conservative critics of such reforms sometimes express the conviction that Hispanic voters are inherently favorable to bigger government and thus more or less permanently immune to Republican appeals. It is a view that combines an off-putting sense of ideological superiority — apparently 'those people' are not persuadable — with a pessimism about the drawing power of conservative ideals. Such attitudes are the prerogative of a sectarian faction. They are not an option for a political party, which cannot afford to lose the ambition to convince."

Gerson is a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President George W. Bush, while Wehner served in the last three Republican administrations. They are pragmatic conservatives and clearly not the right wing's cup of tea, yet they are speaking to a growing concern among a significant cross section of Republicans about how to become popular again. All the hot air aimed at Rove from the Tea Party won't ultimately change the way average voters perceive the party, and only further deteriorate the party's ability to appeal to them.

In his New York Times Magazine piece last weekend, Robert Draper quoted another Bush veteran making offering a sobering assessment of the party's loss of traction with the typical middle-class voter. Ken Mehlman, former campaign manager for Bush in 2004, concluded the GOP has lost its ability to easily attract a majority of typical voters the way it once did. He described a fictional pair of married voters in Dayton, Ohio, thusly: "they worry about economic mobility — can their kids get ahead or even keep up. Their next door neighbors are Latino whose mom gets concerned when she hears talk about self-deportation or no driver's licenses. And that couple has a gay niece and an African-American brother-in-law. And too many folks like the couple in Dayton today wonder is some of the GOP understands their lives anymore."

Understanding a majority of Americans won't be enough. Gerson and Wehner insist the party dare to broaden its appeal, while maintaining its principles, by adopting previously forbidden positions on immigration, climate change and gay rights. To many Republicans this will sound radical. But to most of the voters the party needs to attract to win a national coalition for the White House, it sounds like a good place to start.


WILL THE SKY FALL AFTER SEQUESTER? AskAB returns Monday, Feb. 25. Please join my weekly video Q&A by sending your questions and comments to askab@thehill.com. Thank you.

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