Preface: this focuses entirely on the Republican Party. Please know we value equal opportunity critique, and we plan on having similar reflections focused on Democrats in the future.
After President Obama decisively won re-election, the Republican National Committee created the Growth and Opportunity Project. This independent review panel spent three months conducting research to find substantive communication changes the Republican Party should undertake so they wouldn’t repeat their embarrassing defeat in 2016.
The panel had five co-chairs leading the research:
- Henry Barbour, RNC member and nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour
- Sally Bradshaw, senior advisor for the Florida Republican Party and long-time council of Jeb Bush
- Ari Fleischer, media consultant and former White House Press Secretary (2001-2003)
- Zori Fonalledas, National Committeewoman from Puerto Rico
- Glenn McCall, former Chairman of the York County Republican Party
This resulted in the 2013 Growth & Opportunity Report, sometimes known as the Republican 2012 autopsy. It’s an evocative term, but memorable because it gets to the core of what the GOP was doing with the report: looking at the dead Romney campaign, and learning exactly why it failed.
When reading some sections of the report, it would appear that the Republican Party has learned almost nothing from their loss in 2012, but I think that’s an oversimplification. Let’s take a look.
A study in learning entirely the wrong lesson
[Republicans] must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.
I’ll begin with the obvious: the report offered suggestions on how to expand the GOP base into Latino communities, focusing particularly on immigration as a policy concern. It’s disheartening to remember how close the Republican Party was to following this advice. Now, the conversation over immigration is entirely unproductive—like they’re building a yuge, yuge wall between the GOP and independents.
So what happened? Did Republicans change their mind on the messaging of immigration? I would argue no, because they undertook the bill in the first place. I staunchly believe there’s a parallel universe where Marco Rubio swept the GOP nomination because of his involvement in this exact legislation, and it’s tragic we don’t live in that universe. Seriously—watch him have to distance himself from something he should be proud of:
When looking back on the failure of the immigration bill, it appears the Republican Party didn’t internally agree on the issue. That’s okay. But instead of parsing out that disagreement, they dropped the bill. No compromise.
A study in reluctant resignation
There is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.
No one writing this report in 2013 would’ve guessed that in a little over two years, gay marriage in the US would be legal nationwide. I think the GOP has done a good job moving forward from Obergefell v. Hodges: although gay marriage coming through the Supreme Court is not the ideal circumstance, it’s largely been a non-issue in the 2016 election. Kasich initiated that shift at the first debate last August, and it hasn’t really been talked about since then.
But that’s not to say the Republican Party is doing any better at appealing to gay voters, or those who strongly value the rights of LGBTQ groups. My own home state of Indiana went through an insanely contentious debate over RFRA legislation last year, and similar legislation in other states is being met with the same outrage.
In short, it would appear that Republicans called retreat on the gay marriage front, and have repackaged their arguments in the context of religious liberty. It’s a fight Republicans are a bit more likely to win than the previous one, but it still doesn’t make this gateway any more attractive to young voters. In contrast to the immigration debate, it would’ve been best for Republicans to drop this issue entirely; instead, they’ve given additional reasons for LGBTQ-friendly voters to stay away.
A study in reaching out to ‘the other’
The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.
This is the rhetorical failure destroying the GOP: partisan opposition that is total in nature. It’s an issue based in magnitude of communication rather than specific policy. In the case of the Supreme Court, House Republicans are self–admittedly opposing nominee Merrick Garland solely because they can. This opposition is total, without regard to individual circumstances—it’s the final line of that quote that really jumped out at me: “…those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
The Republican Party is all–or–nothing. The inability to compromise is political death—expect this to be a theme as long as this blog goes on. As a minority party, this strategy can be effective (after all, it has significantly limited Democratic policy over the last seven years); but as the special interests compound on each other, it offers no legitimate path to becoming a majority.
I can already hear people beginning their responses, “But the Democrats are—” YES, I AGREE. The Democrats are going through the same problem right now with particular interest groups commanding the broader party (I can only name one mildly pro-life elected Democrat). But the issue is more obvious within the GOP, and more immediately threatening to the party’s future.
The GOP did learn one thing from the 2012 autopsy: they need to expand their base. To that, I would add an important caveat: they need to do it in the direction of the Democrats if they ever want the Oval Office again.
PS – While going through the Growth and Opportunity Project report, I found these other quotes that didn’t really fit into my piece, but I found interesting / funny. Check them out!
- The number of debates should be reduced by roughly half to a still robust number of approximately 10 to 12, with the first occurring no earlier than September 1, 2015, and the last ending just after the first several primaries, February – March 2016. (We’re done with the GOP debates, and we ended up having 13, only one more than the report suggested. Let’s go for half that again in 2020?)
- Well-funded conservative groups should seek to hire activists to track Democrat incumbents and candidates with video cameras constantly recording their every movement, utterance, and action. Within the applicable legal constraints, we need to create our own video content, bank it, and release it when it suits our candidates’ needs. (Isn’t it crazy that they just lay this out?)
- Establish an RNC Celebrity Task Force of personalities in the entertainment industry to host events for the RNC and allow donors to participate in entertainment events as a way to attract younger voters. (Years later, still no cool Republican celebrities.)