GOP looking to retool its brand

House Speaker John A. Boehner leading GOP lawmakers Friday. Even before the caucus meltdown last week, the GOP's national image had taken a battering.
House Speaker John A. Boehner leading GOP lawmakers Friday. Even before the caucus meltdown last week, the GOP's national image had taken a battering. (J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE / AP)

Many say a change is needed. But as the RNC readies its winter meetings, leaders seem far apart on what to do.

Posted: January 07, 2013

For Republicans, it was bad enough to watch, stunned, as their presidential candidate got thumped across all the demographics that will rule the nation's political future en route to his decisive loss.

Then last week came a fresh blow, as the GOP caucus that controls the U.S. House split apart in chaos over the patchwork deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, raising questions about its durability as a functioning majority and inspiring a fresh round of soul-searching among party elders.

Good thing the Republican brand is going into the shop early in the new year.

When the 150 members of the Republican National Committee convene for their winter meeting Jan. 23 in Charlotte, N.C., perhaps the top item on the agenda will be fixing perceptions that the party has become too conservative and obstructionist, even if it won't officially be listed in the program that way.

A committee appointed by Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus will assess what went wrong in 2012 and how the GOP can recover.

While everybody agrees on the need for change, a problem is that leaders are at odds about what roads lead to recovery.

"One reason our brand stinks is we control Congress," said Michael Hudome, a national GOP media strategist, who is a Delaware County native. "We don't look organized, we look chaotic, we look like wussies, like we're caving to the president. We're not fighting properly. The Republican caucus appears fractured."

Serious cuts

The nation's fiscal woes actually offer an opportunity for image improvement, Hudome believes, if Republicans in Congress hang together in coming negotiations with President Obama and "get some serious spending cuts," especially in places sacred to Republicans (such as defense spending) as well as Democrats (such as Social Security and Medicare). "If we get that done and it sinks in, the brand can begin to rebound."

To former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, House Speaker John A. Boehner's decision to cancel a vote on emergency spending for Hurricane Sandy victims in her state and New York was a pointless blow that made the party look callous. Conservative House Republicans from the South and other regions rebelled at the cost. "It was out of pique," Whitman said.

Current New Jersey Gov. Christie, a prominent, likely future Republican candidate, ripped Boehner and the House caucus, too, for focusing on "palace intrigue" while Sandy victims suffer.

Whitman said: "We let ourselves, as a party, get put into a position where we're mean-spirited. We talk about things that are not uppermost on people's minds, that tend to drive wedges between groups of people."

Some Republican leaders agree and are speaking out in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage or overhauling the immigration system; a few have announced support for some limited gun-control proposals in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.

'Negative party'

"We need to really be for something instead of against," Whitman said. "We're against raising taxes on millionaires, we're against illegal aliens having a path to citizenship, we're against all people who don't think life begins at conception. It's a negative party at the moment."

Whitman, a moderate who works with the centrist group No Labels, thinks a GOP that unites around core principles of limited but smart government and low taxes could fix its image problems and attract broader swaths of support.

Anastasia Przybylski, a nationally prominent tea-party leader from Doylestown, said she was so disgusted by the "circus" of Congress stumbling on the fiscal cliff that she has lost faith that even the Republicans are serious about slowing an unsustainable level of federal spending.

"If the Republican Party becomes just another party of big government, as it was during the Bush years, we have nowhere to turn for common sense," Przybylski said. She was proud, she said, of the GOP lawmakers who voted no on the cliff deal.

Even before the meltdown in the party's House caucus last week, Republicans were laboring under an atrocious national image. For instance, only 30 percent of respondents in a mid-December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had a positive impression of the GOP, vs. 45 percent who expressed a negative impression. (For Democrats, the numbers were nearly reversed: 44 percent positive, 35 percent negative.)

The same poll identified another problem: no identifiable leader. "Got no big man. Nobody can handle the ball. Nobody can make a 'three,' " Hudome said, unspooling a basketball analogy.

To some extent, woe-is-me soul-searching is the lot of a party after a succession of losses. After Michael Dukakis got crushed in 1988, Democrats were in despair, and political scholars spoke of a Republican "lock" on the Electoral College. Bill Clinton, the first Democrat to win two terms since FDR, banished that talk, leading a centrist movement within his party that tempered what many voters saw as the big-government excesses of liberalism.

"There isn't any doubt that [Republicans] have a serious brand problem," said political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. "Parties go through that from time to time. The problem for the Republicans now is that they're on the wrong side of the demographics, with huge losses among young voters, single women in particular, and Hispanics."

Those demographic challenges showed up Nov. 6: Obama held on to much of his 2008 electoral map, in large part because Republicans performed so poorly among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group and one that is transforming politics in once-reliably conservative states such as Virginia, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado.

Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, exit polls found, and Mitt Romney garnered 27 percent, below what John McCain got in 2008 (31 percent).

Republicans put themselves at a disadvantage among Latinos with hard-line stances on immigration, according to polls and strategists. The primaries last year pushed the party's candidates, and eventual standard-bearer Romney, further to the right on the issue, with opposition to any path to citizenship for immigrants in the United States illegally.

Priebus has targeted the primary process and wants to return to a winner-take-all format. Awarding delegates on a proportional basis extended the primary season as Romney fought off conservative challengers; the length of the process, many strategists believe, weakened the eventual nominee. Members of Priebus' special committee also are considering ways to limit the number of primary debates.

The fact that the GOP also was swamped among young voters was a potentially ominous sign, as research shows that early voting patterns often persist for a lifetime.

Then there is the party's problem with women, compounded by a focus on taking federal funding away from Planned Parenthood, and widely reported comments from a pair of GOP Senate candidates that were seen as insensitive about rape. Romney and other party leaders had to distance themselves from former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri after he justified his opposition to abortion in cases of rape by averring that in a "legitimate rape," a woman's body has a natural way of preventing conception.

By the week after the election, the Republican woman who once served as top aide to President George W. Bush had had enough. Karen Hughes wrote in an op-ed for Politico: "If another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue."

Sifting through the ashes of November, party leaders acknowledge the challenges and have begun moving to address them. A chorus of leading conservatives, for instance, has called for a reform of the nation's immigration system that would provide avenues to citizenship for undocumented immigrants with solid work histories and clean criminal records.

All is not grim for the GOP. At the end of the day, the party still controls more state legislatures and governors' offices than the Democrats.

Besides, funny things happen in politics and the GOP's troubles are not necessarily its destiny; by the 2014 elections, journalists could be writing about the coming Republican wave.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read

his blog, "The Big Tent,"

at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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