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A.B. Stoddard: GOP must change

OPINION l President Obama has plunged in popularity in the 14 months since he stunned Republicans by getting reelected with 51 percent of the vote, causing even his own supporters to question whether he can salvage his presidency. Republicans have spent the same months, after conceding the party must expand and change to win back the White House, plunging their collective head into the sand.

At this point the GOP, buoyed by the failings of ObamaCare, will likely hold the House and possibly win the Senate. But in reality the party is more divided than it was after the 2012 elections. It is united only around opposition to the Affordable Care Act and divided over how to replace the healthcare law; the lessons of the government shutdown; drone policy; gay marriage; spending cuts; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; anti-terrorism surveillance policy; immigration reform; and now the minimum wage and the extension of unemployment insurance.

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A year ago, many Republicans conceded the party faced substantial obstacles to winning the presidency again. Much shock at political polling and misguided anger at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for hosting Obama after Superstorm Sandy hit just before Election Day gave way to reality — the 2012 exit polls told the story of the GOP’s steep and worsening demographic liability.

It wasn’t helped by Mitt Romney talking about the 47 percent of America that he didn’t have to “worry” about because they were so hardened by government dependence. But the GOP nominee’s losses among Asian Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and the young were decisive, and the shrinking white electorate once again lost an expected 2 percentage points. Meanwhile, Obama was able to replace dispirited members of his 2008 coalition with new young, minority votes. Not only would turnout strategies have to change, Republicans admitted, but so would some rhetoric and policies. 

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, released a bold prescription for the party that recommended not only pushing for immigration reform but tailoring the party’s message to immigrants, minorities and women. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who stepped up to lead bravely on the issue, took so much heat from the editorial board of the National Review and Tea Party leaders that he walked away from the fight.

Yet Rubio, a likely presidential contender, has joined several other Republicans in attempting to break through the anti-everything narrative, proposing or supporting some version of safety net policies to contrast the Democrats’ campaign narrative of a Republican war on the poor.

Obama and his party hope GOP policies ­— from cutting food stamps to ending unemployment benefits to opposing an increase in the minimum wage — can hold up as a campaign platform against the woes of ObamaCare this fall. It doesn’t look promising for Democrats this year, when an older, whiter midterm electorate is likely to vote Republican. But in a presidential election year, a broader group of voters, many focused on safety net issues, will turn out at the polls, and it’s those minds Republicans have to change. Conservatives Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, who worked for former President George W. Bush, argue in National Affairs magazine that Republicans must convince voters they can build a better government. They write that “many conservatives have failed to see the extent to which equal opportunity itself, a central premise of our national self-understanding, is becoming harder to achieve,” and that while Americans are disillusioned with government, “there is no evidence that Americans have turned against the aims of modern government.”

To win again, the GOP must change. For Republicans, as it was for the president, 2013 was a lost year.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.