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Byron York: Is Republican reform real, or just talk?

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Politics,Byron York,Campaign 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "If we're being honest about it, we have not really won a decisive presidential election since 1988," RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters a few minutes after winning -- uncontested -- a second term at the party's winter meeting here in Charlotte.  In his speech to the RNC's 168 members, Priebus put up a slide of the 1988 electoral map, a map that showed California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and Connecticut all in red.  From today's perspective, it was downright astonishing.  And although the audience couldn't see it, the large, and slightly rickety, gavel that Priebus and other party officials wielded at the podium had a brass plate that was engraved 1988 REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION. 

That was 25 years ago; Republicans are painfully aware of just how long ago the good old days were.  And nobody at the winter meeting had any illusions that 80's-style Republican success is even on the horizon for the party.  But even though everyone realized the gravity of the situation, there were still questions, as the members left Charlotte, about how the GOP will try to solve its problems.  Will it enter a period of fundamental self-examination?  Or will it decide that its main difficulties are in communications and messaging, and focus on superficial changes in hopes of winning future elections?

The answer: Don't look for fundamental self-examination. Certainly the party's leaders are talking about serious change.  But the conclusion that emerged from the three-day meeting in North Carolina is that the party by itself cannot make fundamental changes when it comes to the stands Republicans take on some of the nation's most important and divisive issues.  The central GOP can improve its technology, its communications strategy, its get-out-the-vote efforts, its engagement with minorities.  But a new Republican vision for the future, if there is to be one, will be left for a future Republican candidate to shape.

After losing the presidency, the Senate, and some seats in the House last November, Priebus established a group that was known internally as the "autopsy committee" but is now officially called the "Growth and Opportunity Project."  Its job is to examine last November's defeats and come up with ways to restore Republican competitiveness.  Its members are GOP mainstay Henry Barbour, nephew of Haley; Sally Bradshaw, who is a close ally of Jeb Bush; Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman; Glenn McCall, a South Carolina committeeman; and Zori Fonalledas, a committeewoman from Puerto Rico.

The group says it hopes to deliver a report by March.  But in discussing the work with reporters Thursday, they said it's not their job to recommend policy changes. That is the province of Republican elected officials and candidates.  "We're not a policy group," Fleischer declared.  "We will not be a policy committee making recommendations to elected officials."

The group is studying a lot of things, among them the GOP's dismal showing with Hispanics and other minorities; its hopelessly out-of-date efforts to get voters to the polls; its technologically backward voter-contact program, and a primary and debate schedule that many thought damaging to the party.

Those are all important things, and areas where the GOP has to improve if it is to win again.  But even as that work goes on, basic questions about where Republicans stand -- or should stand -- will go unanswered. For example: Did Republicans in the last election effectively address the deep concerns of millions of Americans who fear for their jobs and have seen their standard of living decline over many years?  Was the GOP correct to press for lower taxes on the nation's top earners all the way to the bitter end?  What about the war in Afghanistan?  Social issues?

Don't look for answers, or even suggestions of answers, from the Growth and Opportunity Project.  It will be dealing with more doable things.  At one point, I asked the group about the Democratic Party's self-examination that took place after its 1988 trouncing, which of course followed an even bigger trouncing in 1984 and a painful loss in 1980.  Democrats had to face the reality that they had much more than a communications problem, that they were soft on crime, soft on defense, too liberal on social issues -- in general, that they were out of sync with the American people.  Fleischer and others pointed out that the Democratic Party didn't exactly pull itself out of that hole; instead, a new leader, Bill Clinton, guided them to victory.  "It was really a unique candidate in 1992 who changed that for the Democratic Party," Fleischer said.  "It was not the party itself that made those changes -- it was an individual candidate."

Fleischer's point, which was shared by many other Republicans at the meeting, was this: There are a lot of things the GOP can work on, but in the biggest sense, they're waiting for the right candidate to come along and fix the problem.  "The most important part of the campaign is the candidate," said Henry Barbour.

One topic Republicans did discuss a lot was the tone of GOP candidates and supporters during the last campaign.  The RNC members gathered in Charlotte were convinced that their party went almost out of its way to alienate some voter groups.  That tone, all believe, has to change. "There certainly is a lot of talk about tone," Barbour told reporters.  "There are too many times that we have had candidates who have come across as hostile."

"A lot of what we talked about this weekend was about tone, was about messaging, was about how we address the general public and appeal to a larger audience," said Saul Anuzis, a former head of the Michigan GOP. 

"One message is loud and clear from the 2012 election," said Fleischer.  "Many voters found that Republicans were not inclusive."

Few people at the winter meeting had any interest in bashing Mitt Romney.  But there's no doubt that many saw their losing 2012 candidate as the poster child for bad tone.  Privately, some railed about the negative messages Romney sent: the $10,000 bet, the pair of Cadillacs, the NASCAR owners, and, of course, the infamous "47 percent" video.  Romney seemed to specialize in the wrong tone.

For all the talk about counterproductive messaging, it's fair to say that most, and perhaps all, Republicans at the meeting believed there is nothing wrong with the Republican Party's core values.  "The good news is our principles are sound," Priebus told the group.  "We stand for opportunity and for liberty.  Freedom is always a new idea -- an ever-fresh, revolutionary idea." 

Who could disagree?  At that level of generality, Republicans are fully united.

The group heard a more bracing message from one of the GOP's 2016 hopefuls, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.  "We must stop being the stupid party," Jindal said in the keynote address Thursday night.  "We must stop looking backward…We must stop insulting the intelligence of voters…We must reject identity politics…We must compete for every single vote."

Jindal, who brushes off questions about his '16 ambitions, has been especially vocal about the GOP's dilemma in the time since last November's defeat.  But it's not clear how much his message is connecting with Republican activists.  In Charlotte, judging by the audience, he was well received but not hugely well received.  (Some noted, unhappily, that Jindal used a teleprompter, just like the one they ridicule President Obama for using; one asked, "A teleprompter?  In this room, among friends?")  And while Republicans have at difficult times over the years privately referred to the GOP as "the stupid party," it's not clear how much they enjoy it being shouted from the rooftops.

As wintry weather moved into Charlotte Friday afternoon, most Republicans moved out.  They're not sure what to expect; one southern politico said he felt many of them were still in some degree of shock.  But they are not hopeless.  Suppose they really do improve the way they work, and then a good candidate comes along, and then Barack Obama stumbles -- it's not impossible to imagine an upturn in Republican fortunes.

"We are at the point where I think the party will come back, based on who our nominee is," said Saul Anuzis.  "I believe we are going to have ten to fifteen qualified, high-profile people running, which means there will be a lot of messengers out there.  That's what's going to rally the party."

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