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One Strategy For A GOP Overhaul? Follow The Democrats' Example

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, shown here in August at the Republican National Convention, has named a five-member task force to conduct a review of what went wrong for his party in the November elections.
Charles Dharapak
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, shown here in August at the Republican National Convention, has named a five-member task force to conduct a review of what went wrong for his party in the November elections.

These are difficult times for the Republican Party. In the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Democrats led Republicans — in some cases by double digits — on issues like Medicare, taxes and the economy.

In a new Pew poll, 62 percent of those surveyed say the GOP is out of touch with the American people. Now the Republican Party is trying to figure out what it has to do to start winning elections again.

The GOP has now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. And whether they think the party needs to rethink, rebrand or merely refine its message, there's wide agreement among Republicans that the party has to change.

There's no shortage of advice. David Winston, a strategist for the House Republican leadership, says his party has to stand for something — not just oppose.

"There are a lot of Republican campaigns that I would argue, if the Democrat candidate didn't exist, they wouldn't know what to say," Winston says. "And that's just not an acceptable state of affairs in terms of, if you're a party whose purpose is to govern, then you should have a clear direction in terms of what it is you're proposing."

An Updated Philosophy?

At a recent party meeting, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told Republicans they should stop fixating on the federal budget.

"We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping. This is a rigged game, and it is the wrong game for us to play," he said. "Today it's the fiscal cliff; tomorrow it'll be the fiscal apocalypse; then it'll be the fiscal Armageddon."

At the same meeting, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, put it in much simpler terms: "There's one clear, overriding lesson from November: We didn't have enough voters. ... We have to find more supporters. We have to go places we haven't been, and we have to invite new people to join us."

Priebus has named a five-member task force to conduct a review of what went wrong in November. It's called the Growth and Opportunity Project.

Sally Bradshaw, a Florida Republican strategist, is one of its members.

"I do think the party has really come together in an effort to understand the challenges we face and where we need to go from here," Bradshaw says. "There are messaging challenges; there are candidate challenges; there are challenges in terms of data and use of technology."

Bradshaw knows the solution will involve more than just retooling the campaign apparatus. The GOP may also have to update the way it thinks about the philosophy that has guided the party for more than 30 years — Reaganism — and, in particular, how Republicans interpret this seminal statement from President Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

For Republicans, that is the most frequently quoted sentence Reagan ever uttered, says Ramesh Ponnuru of the American Enterprise Institute.

"But what they forget is that that sentence began, 'In this present crisis,' " Ponnuru says. "He was making a statement that was very much tied to the challenges that America faced at that time. ... He certainly wasn't saying government would always be the same problem in the same way."

A New Message?

Ponnuru thinks Republicans need a new economic message to help them reconnect with the concerns of the middle class — new concerns, like income stagnation.

"When Reagan took office, he could be confident that when you had economic growth, people's wages would go up," Ponnuru says. "And in more recent years, that hasn't been the case."

Republicans are being offered lots of new ideas. Some are politically plausible and some almost unthinkable: Promote school choice. End corporate welfare. Break up the big banks. Embrace an immigration overhaul. Accept the science behind climate change.

A New Model?

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, says there is a model for the kind of deep rethink his party needs — and it's the Democrats.

They went through a similar political exile in the late 1980s after losing the White House again and again.

"The historical question here is ... whether the Republican Party is like the Democrats in 1988 — where they doubled down and picked another candidate that lost," Gerson says, referring to Michael Dukakis, "or whether they're like the Democrats in 1992, where they realized they had a big change to make and they turned to a reform-oriented Southern governor [Bill Clinton] who significantly reformatted the Democratic message — not just in tone, but actually in substance on some key issues like welfare reform."

Gerson thinks the Republicans need a group like the one Clinton — then the governor of Arkansas — formed in the late 1980s called the Democratic Leadership Council.

"It's not enough right now for a candidate to say, 'I'm a Republican.' That doesn't communicate very much. They need to be able to say, 'I'm a different kind of Republican,' " he says. "And I think an organization, the equivalent of the DLC, from a conservative perspective — this is, in my view, not a mushy moderation. It's taking conservative and free-market ideas and applying them to the task of helping people broadly in this country achieve the American dream."

That's just one of the many ideas Republicans are considering. The process is just beginning, and it's not clear how long it will take. After all, Democrats had to lose the White House five out of six times before they were able to remake themselves as a party.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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