GOPers still don’t get it

For all the words having been written and all the opinions expressed lately about the Republican Party’s seeming lack of relevance, its leaders just don’t seem to have gotten the message. Some sage advisers understand. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Richard Bond is quoted in a recent New York Times online piece as saying, “Some days you’re rolling the barrel and some days you’re rolling in the barrel. The fact is that right now, Republicans are rolling in the barrel.” Other thoughtful Republicans express similar concerns. Mike Murphy, one of the GOP’s better consultants, who has managed to carve out a life in Hollywood and on the small screen as a frequent talking head, worries about the “tone” of the party. “Ultimately, the message has to be about big things,” Murphy says. “But tone is how you wrap it.”

The wrapping recently has been tone-deaf. Former Vice President Dick Cheney seems to grow further out of touch with current political reality every time he pops up on a television talk show. Cheney’s choice this past Sunday to expand his attacks on President Obama to include former Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell was particularly off message. The vice president seemed to be dragging old Bush administration policy fights and bad blood into the open again, reminding us all that he won those internal power struggles and wearing his victories like tarnished medals from a poorly conceived and badly executed war that America wants to be finished with. Cheney may passionately believe that the policies he advocated were the right ones. But he does not serve his nation or his party well to suggest that the current president and a widely admired former secretary of State threaten the nation’s security because they disagree with him. We had some 18 months of debate over the wisdom of the Iraq war and the tactics that prosecuted it. American voters made their opinion on Cheney’s position clear. Still trying to win that argument only makes it more likely that his party will continue losing elections.

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Republicans need to foster a new generation of leaders who can provide a positive vision to compete with President Obama’s leadership on domestic and foreign policy. Instead, they seem trapped with a gang of old messengers who remind voters what they grew to dislike about the Republican Party. Cheney went so far this weekend as to say he’d prefer Rush Limbaugh to Powell as a leader for the party — well, there goes the new vision thing. Rahm Emanuel must have been beside himself with the former veep endorsing Rush as the spokesman for Republicans.

Newt Gingrich continues to get airtime and to advance his strategies for a Republican rebirth. Newt’s pollster and sidekick Frank Luntz crawled out of retirement earlier this month to deliver a speech and one of his infamous leaked strategy memos to congressional Republicans on how to win the healthcare debate. Luntz, one of the most overrated and self-promoted political consultants in history, had nothing new to say about healthcare reform. His strategy memo consisted of warmed-over 1994 talking points such as “healthcare is about people” and the suggestion that arguments against proposals by President Obama and Democrats in Congress must center around “bureaucrats” and “Washington.” Talking about the healthcare system, the free market, tax incentives and competition are non-starters. (See “Harry & Louise,” 1993-94.)

Luntz was welcomed with calls of “We’re glad you’re back” when he spoke to a GOP congressional group. It was not reported whether any members were holding lighters aloft during the performance, but listening to classic tunes from the likes of Luntz, Gingrich, Limbaugh and Cheney is not what this Republican Party needs. These “golden oldies” may have their place, but it is not on the national stage at a time like this.

Republicans need to turn to their bench and to more positive messages to avoid even further erosion in congressional clout in the 2010 elections. Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida may be a prototype of the mainstream, positive leadership the party needs. It will be interesting to see if he can translate the popularity of his one term as governor to his upcoming Senate race. There are others who might provide national leadership, like Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah or even Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the House Republican whip, who can help the party learn a new tune. Barring leaders like that stepping forward, Republicans are likely to continue sounding tone-deaf to American voters’ ears.



Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com