With election loss still fresh, GOP struggles to unite on path forward

There are plenty of prescriptions for how the Republican Party might change after its disappointments in the 2012 elections, but it is unclear how fast the GOP will coalesce around a new direction.

Many prominent figures insist that the scale of the party’s defeat makes the need for a rapid and sweeping overhaul self-evident. But other conservatives caution against a panicked jettisoning of established principles.

“We can argue back and forth about policies. But it’s not possible to argue against the math of a changing electorate,” said Republican consultant Jon McHenry, whose firm North Star Opinion Research numbers Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) among its clients.

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Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa, agreed that the GOP has to expand its reach but added a significant caveat: “I think it’s important to sit back, take it all in and think about it, instead of making snap decisions and saying, ‘Well, we lost this election and now we need to support amnesty for the illegal immigrants that are in this country,’" he said. "I don’t think we should make rash decisions right now.”

The flurry of advice, from within and outside the party, has been organized around a handful of main themes, including the one alluded to by Robinson: The party should moderate its stance and its rhetoric on illegal immigration so as to diminish its deficit among Hispanic voters, the modernizers say.

They add that the GOP needs to be more muscular in ensuring that its policies — and, perhaps more importantly, its overall attitudes — are not viewed through the negative lens provided by Democrats. 

This goes both for social and economic policy. Insiders fret that the past election cycle saw Democrats inflict real damage by labeling the GOP as hostile to women’s rights and as the party of the rich rather than the aspirational middle class.

“We’ve got to be the party of the middle class. I don’t know why we’ve essentially ceded that ground to the Democrats,” said strategist Matt Mackowiak. “We don’t believe our policies only help rich people. We believe our policies help people become rich.” 

The modernizers’ camp has another offshoot, populated by data-crunchers rather than message-masseurs. 

Republicans must get better at utilizing new technology to identify and micro-target potential supporters, they say — while at the same time adding heft to the ground-game operations that get people to the polls on Election Day.

Key figures in the party have addressed all of these themes since the election. Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) has expressed confidence that a bipartisan deal on comprehensive immigration reform is possible. Rubio visited Iowa Saturday and told reporters that “people understand that we need to do something to address those issues and they want to do that in a reasonable and responsible way.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie publicly criticized Mitt Romney’s remarks on a post-election call with donors. The defeated presidential candidate ascribed President Obama’s victory to his having given “gifts” to minorities and other elements of the Democratic base.

Jindal called Romney’s view “absolutely wrong” and added that the party had to “stop dividing” the public and instead emphasize that “we are fighting for 100 percent of the votes.” Christie agreed with Jindal and suggested Romney’s words were founded on being “very upset about having lost the election.”

Meanwhile, Republican operatives from both older and younger generations, from Karl Rove to digital media expert Patrick Ruffini, have argued for urgent innovation to level a ground-game battlefield that has tilted markedly in the Democrats’ favor since 2004, when the GOP and President George W. Bush held the advantage.

Alongside all this, there is a parallel argument between those who seek swift unity, albeit around a modified party platform, and those who emphasize the need for a frank (and possibly prolonged) internal debate.

The latter camp includes some unexpected members, including Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who recently advocated “a few years of healthy, spirited, and fruitful disorganization” and suggested that the GOP should be open to raising taxes.

Even some in the modernizing camp were startled by Kristol’s suggestion — made on Fox News the weekend after the election — that “it won’t kill the country if Republicans raise taxes a little bit on millionaires.”

“We’re not going to see a lot of people pursuing Bill Kristol’s line. We are not going to see people lining up to increase taxes,” McHenry said.

On the immigration issue, however, McHenry was confident that those advocating change would soon carry the day.

“You’ll see that, certainly by the next presidential election,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot more cycles that we can allow to go past when Hispanics just go in and routinely pull the Democratic level. Republicans just can’t afford that to be the case among Hispanic voters.”

Mackowiak agreed, both in terms of the Hispanic vote and a deeper party rethink. He argued that a tipping-point would soon be reached at which a majority of Republicans in Washington would be willing to support a sizable shift on immigration policy.

More broadly, he said, “I’m seeing a pretty good level of consensus. Losing two elections the way we have done, and looking at the policy ramifications of that, are really going to focus the party.”

But even as party elites are largely convinced of the need for change, there are other voices beyond the Beltway that are not so sure. If the GOP is to be recalibrated toward a more centrist conservatism, the modernizers will have to either reassure or overcome some traditionalist activists, many of whom are in no mood to give up the fight.

Washington Republicans "keep telling us that to win we have to stand for nothing, attack Democrats mercilessly and win over independents,” said Iowa-based conservative radio host Steve Deace. “Romney did all that and he lost. Obama turned out his base and won."

Conservative activists, he added, “are angry at the establishment of the party.”