Reince Priebus (AP)
At the first formal gathering of the Republican National Committee since the party’s electoral defeat in November 2012, GOP standard-bearer, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, argued that we must “recalibrate the compass of conservatism” away from Washington budget issues, but showed no inclination toward ideological retreat: “We do not need to change what we believe as conservatives — our principles are timeless.”
Fair enough. No one should expect Republicans to change their core beliefs just because some of those ideas make them unpopular with Democrats. As Jindal observed, liberals already have a party. Nor would any principled Republican be expected to abandon his or her beliefs out of political expedience.
Nonetheless, given the growing importance of minority voters, the increased acceptance of same-sex marriage and liberalized marijuana laws among politically-engaged younger voters, and the GOP’s cringe-inducing collective mismanagement of women’s issues during the last election cycle, Republicans will need to change something or accept permanent status as the underdog party in national elections. And as Democrats seek to make their national dominance permanent by capturing Hispanic-heavy Republican bastions like Texas and swing states like Florida, Republicans are going to have to get over any change-resistant squeamishness in short order.
There is an increasingly popular line of thought — championed by Newt Gingrich at the RNC — that the Republican message is fine, but we need to be better and more sympathetic explainers. This may be wishful thinking, like speaking more loudly to be understood in a foreign language, but a friendlier and more welcoming approach to conveying conservative principles is certainly worth trying. The “tone and tolerance” crowd aren’t proposing anything we shouldn’t have been doing as a party anyway, so like Pascal’s Wager, it seems a good bet. Let’s start yesterday.
The good news is that any number of Republican activists have, in fact, been laboring away in obscurity on new voter engagement for years. The most encouraging aspect of the RNC’s program in Charlotte last week was that it showcased the phenomenal efforts some members have already been making to reach out to urban voters, Hispanics and Asian and Pacific Islanders despite inadequate funding and lack of recognition. Even the women’s engagement programs that were highlighted at the conference seemed on the right track, just too small.
The question will now become one of resources — if at the next RNC meeting we see real money put behind ramping up these and other efforts to re-introduce the GOP message to non-traditional conservative voters, then I will be more sanguine about our future prospects as a majority party. The only thing I can ever remember agreeing with Joe Biden about is a quote he attributed to his father: “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” The GOP now needs to put real money behind its grassroots, youth, minority voter and women’s programs to prove its seriousness. This part should be easy; newly re-elected RNC chairman Reince Priebus’ “Growth and Opportunity” initiative shows he is ready to take sensible steps to expand the party’s reach.
Unfortunately, the biggest challenge to the GOP is one of tone and tolerance within our own ranks. Pollsters presenting to the RNC in Charlotte argued that more voters self-identify as “conservative” than ever pull the GOP lever in the voting booth. By their account, self-identified conservatives are a majority in America today. So why can’t we put a majority together nationally on Election Day? One answer is that conservatives come in different flavors: economic, social, foreign policy, and now those focused on liberty and States’ rights.
Libertarian-leaning Republican Ron Paul has retired, but his supporters are still active and they are the youngest and most media-savvy grassroots conservatives on the political scene. We, as a party, would be very foolish to lose their organizing skills and passion. The tension between the Liberty wing of the Republican Party and “establishment” conservatives remains palpable, but adding Libertarianism to the mix of conservative options answers a lot of the most confounding ideological challenges facing the Republican Party today: How do we attract a youth vote that is increasingly unconcerned with both religion and social conservatism? How do we counter the Democratic strategy to turn out the — now almost exclusively liberal — youth vote using referenda on legal access to marijuana (as happened in Colorado)? How do we appeal to Conservatives who reject Neo-Con enthusiasm for military adventurism in the name of democracy? Bringing the Liberty wing of the Party into a meaningful conservative coalition is a pragmatic and intelligent start to answering these staggeringly difficult questions.
Social Moderates need to be included as well. Since 2006, when former New Jersey Gov. Christy Whitman’s moderate PAC (It’s My Party Too) failed to catch fire, Northeastern Republicans have existed in a political purgatory where their extinction was regularly heralded by the mainstream press—with satisfaction exhibited by ideological purists on both sides of the aisle. The survivors are battle-hardened. Now is the time for the GOP to admit social moderates as equal partners. Inviting pro-choice and pro-gay marriage Republicans to the table will answer many of the concerns plaguing even ardent conservative women, younger voters and Log Cabin Republicans who support the economic and foreign policies of the GOP but find the party’s social policy platform too intrusive on their individual liberty.
Admitting moderates will not be easy for social conservatives whose political beliefs are not merely strong opinions but often articles of faith. Both sides will need to display extraordinary mutual respect and cool-headedness to make this work. Coalitions pre-suppose that the parties disagree on some matters but agree in the main. Ronald Reagan is said to have been a pragmatist regarding political alliances, viewing a colleague who agreed with him 80 percent of the time as an ally, not a 20 percent traitor. As in most things, our party should follow Reagan’s lead.
So I say “yes” to improved tone and tolerance — both when reaching out to potential new conservative voters as well as within our own ranks. No one person needs to change his or her views, but all self-identified conservatives need to be accorded respect and opportunity within the GOP. We need to learn to accept internal debate — including in primaries — but vote as a block. This is how the GOP will assemble a winning conservative coalition for 2016.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.