Jan. 26, 2013 - 7:02 AM EST updated
The GOP has emphasized its need to change communication styles.
Photo by AP Photo
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Republican Party honchos who huddled here for their first big gathering since the election devoted lots of time talking about the need to welcome Latinos and women, close the technology gap with Democrats and stop the self-destructive talk about rape.
But the party’s main problem, dozens of Republican National Committee members argued in interviews over three days this week, is who delivers its message and how, not the message itself. Overwhelmingly they insisted that substantive policy changes aren’t the answer to last year’s losses.
Moderation, at least at this stage, is no virtue at the RNC.
“It’s not the platform of the party that’s the issue,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said Friday after being easily reelected to a second, two-year term. “In many cases, it’s how we communicate about it. It is a couple dumb things that people have said.”
A slide presented during a closed-press strategy session said that Mitt Romney might be president if he had won fewer than 400,000 more votes in key swing states.
“We don’t need a new pair of shoes; we just need to shine our shoes,” said West Virginia national committeewoman Melody Potter.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told a luncheon crowd that the GOP is at “a turning point” and needs “real change.”
Then he clarified: “It’s not about ideology…The people on the left are the people on the left, and they ask us to come to them – which is absurd…Obama’s a hard core left-winger. I want him to compromise with us on our terms.”
Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett said the key to a GOP turnaround is to catch up with Democrats technologically.
“Listen, we’re a conservative party. I’m proud of that,” he said. “They were on the ground for four years in Ohio. We didn’t pick up what they were doing in that four-year period, and they were pretty damn effective.”
A big focus of the four-day session, which wraps up Saturday, was adopting a more positive attitude – and smiling! – when interacting with voters and reporters. New Hampshire chairman Wayne MacDonald said party leadings need to work on “not being sour-pusses on television or the radio” – that there is a way to be firm and assertive without being mean-spirited.
“Nobody is saying the Republican Party has to change our beliefs in any of our platform planks,” he said. “This party wants to serve everybody that believes in our principles.”
Many of the 168 elected members of the committee brought up the comments about rape by GOP Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Each lost, even as Romney won both states handily.
“On some things, we have the right policy and do a terrible job conveying it. And the Democrats have a bad policy and do a great job,” said Mississippi Republican Chairman Joe Nosef. “So conservatives feel like, whether this is right or wrong, that if we’re talking about the issues, that we have a really good chance at winning. The thing we can’t do is start talking about crazy stuff… We run people off… A collective number of these people are tired of doing that.”
“I feel like a pro-life position is a position that a lot of people have, but that doesn’t have anything to do with crazy talk about rape,” he added.
Without objection, the full RNC approved a resolution by voice vote Friday calling on Congress to defund Planned Parenthood and redistribute the money intended for cancer screening and preventive services to organizations that do not perform abortions.
Behind closed doors, party bigwigs discussed “strategic partnerships” with blacks, Asians, Hispanics and women. There was talk about developing a “comfort factor” so that minorities feel they are part of the process.
“Actually our principles are more conducive to minorities than the Democrats,” said Holland L. Redfield II, the Virgin Island’s national committeeman.
Former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, now Kentucky’s representative on the committee, recalled the soul-searching that occurred after the 1992, 1996 and 2008 elections. He sees the chance to experiment with new forms of outreach ahead of the governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey this year.
“The principles are sound,” he said. “Enlarging the map means reaching out to a lot more people and having a consistent dialogue with those people… It’s inviting them in. It’s communicating with them in the proper forums: it’s not just language but where they’re reading. It’s explaining the values to them.”
The widespread belief in the halls of the Westin Charlotte was that the pendulum will inevitably swing back the party’s way, just as it has in the past.
“In some respects, obviously, we have to look at things that didn’t work well,” said Curly Haugland, the national committeeman from North Dakota – a red state where Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won the U.S. Senate race. “But we actually have no shortage of successes around the country.”
He’s confident that Obama will overreach now that he’s secured reelection – and that this will drive voters to Republicans in the 2014 midterms.
“This administration is a socialist administration. There’s no question about it,” Haugland said. “America’s not a socialist country.”
Priebus convened a group to review what went wrong in 2012. Its members announced Thursday that they will not offer specific policy recommendations in their March report.
Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary, noted that some Republican governors have won much higher percentages of minority groups than national candidates. Tone makes a difference, he said.
“It is a tale of two parties,” he said. “There’s a lot of success out there built around people who fundamentally have the same world view as the federal candidates.”
In fact, some border-state governors hold dramatically different views on the best approach to immigration than Romney and congressional leaders. And Romney’s view was much more hard-line than George W. Bush’s in 2004.
Mississippi national committeeman Henry Barbour, Haley’s nephew and one of the co-chairs of the review, said he read a 30-page paper written by a Democratic group in 1989 in the wake of Michael Dukakis’ loss. At a press conference, he marveled at the hand-wringing in light of the fact that Bill Clinton would win four years later.
Washington Examiner columnist Byron York, in the audience, interjected to note that Democrats went through wrenching changes in the wake of that defeat. Indeed, Clinton moved the party back toward the middle after more than a decade of being stranded in the out-of-touch liberal wilderness during the Reagan years.
For his part, Priebus warned against becoming “little more than watered-down Democrats.” He said the party should “stop talking about ‘reaching out’ and start working on ‘welcoming in.’”
“We can stand by our timeless principles and articulate them in ways that are modern, relevant to our time and relatable to the majority of voters,” he said. “That, I believe, is how we’ll achieve a Republican renewal.”
In discussing minority outreach, Priebus continued to stress that Hispanics and African Americans “have struggled disproportionately in the Obama economy.” That was a common – but ineffective – Republican refrain through 2012.
“When it comes to young people, when it comes to new African-American leaders, Hispanic leaders, we really have done an incredible job over the last few years,” said Priebus. “We’ve just done a lousy job bragging about it.”
The Puerto Rican woman he appointed to the review committee, Zori Fonalledas, did not speak during the half-hour press conference. Most of the talking was done by the two white men, Barbour and Fleischer.
Most GOP leaders recognize that real policy innovation – and recalibration – will come not from the RNC but from the 30 Republican governors, many of whom face tough reelections in 2014.
Newly-elected North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a rising GOP star, believes the party must reorient itself away from Washington and focus on experimenting with new policy approaches in the states.
“Sometimes I turn on the Sunday talk shows and I go, ‘These people have no idea what’s happening out there,’” he said in an extended interview. “It’s all the same eight people on the talk shows, and they don’t get outside the Beltway themselves…They’re all talking to themselves: the pundits, the Republicans, the Democrats.”
“We as Republicans need to develop a farm system in recruiting new talent for the future,” he added. “Part of my job as a 56-year-old governor is to start identifying the 35-year-olds and get them experience, whether it comes from the public sector or the private sector.”