Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Republican Autopsy Report


By THOMAS B. EDSALL/New York Times
On Monday a Republican task force released a remarkably hard-headed diagnosis of the party’s many liabilities: its ideological rigidity, its preference for the rich over workers, its alienation of minorities, its reactionary social policies and its institutionalized repression of dissent and innovation.
The 97-page Growth and Opportunity Project report was commissioned in the wake of the 2012 election debacle by Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. The G.O.P. report is an extraordinary public acknowledgment of internal discord and vulnerability, which has intensified the battle between the deeply committed conservative wing and the more pragmatic, pro-business wing for control of the Republican Party. With just a few exceptions, it does not mince words.

At the federal level, it says, the party is “marginalizing itself,” and, in the absence of major change, “it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win a presidential election in the near future.” Young voters are “rolling their eyes at what the party represents.” Voters’ belief that “the G.O.P. does not care about them is doing great harm.” Formerly loyal voters gathered in focus groups describe Republicans as “ ‘scary,’ ‘narrow-minded’ and ‘out of touch’ and that we were a party of ‘stuffy old men.’ ”
In a rare intervention in policy making for a political committee, the R.N.C. report calls for abandonment of the party’s anti-immigration stance, flatly declaring that “we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” In an equally radical challenge to Republican orthodoxy, the Priebus report states:
We have to blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance and attack corporate welfare. We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when C.E.O.s receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.
The report also warns that Republicans need to mute, if not silence, anti-gay rhetoric if they are to have any chance of regaining support among voters under the age of 30.
For the G.O.P. to appeal to younger voters, we do not have to agree on every issue, but we do need to make sure young people do not see the Party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view. Already, 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. If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out. The Party should be proud of its conservative principles, but just because someone disagrees with us on 20 percent of the issues, that does not mean we cannot come together on the rest of the issues where we do agree.
This suggests that the issue of same-sex marriage is on course to become a source of significant division within the Republican Party, as social conservatives view the commitment to marriage as a sacrament between a man and woman. Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, contended in a phone interview that the Republican Party risked alienating a large block of loyal voters if it moved to the left on same-sex marriage. Reed argues that opposing same-sex marriage is not a liability and that voters are evenly split on the issue, according to exit polls. In fact, in the 2012 exit polls, and in Washington Post polling, a plurality of voters, 49-46, responded affirmatively to the question “Should same-sex marriages be legal in your state?” The issue has shown steady growth in public support.
Priebus and the five authors of the report – Henry Barbour (nephew of former R.N.C. chairman Haley Barbour) of Mississippi, Zori Fonalledas of Puerto Rico, and Glenn McCall of South Carolina, all members of the R.N.C., along with Sally Bradshaw, an adviser to Jeb Bush, and Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to George W. Bush – were far more blunt in their analysis than many expected.
There is at least one crucial problem that the authors, all members of the establishment wing of the party, address only peripherally and with kid gloves: the extreme conservatism of the party’s primary and caucus voters — the people who actually pick nominees. For over three decades, these voters have episodically shown an inclination to go off the deep end and nominate general election losers in House and Senate races — or, in the case of very conservative states and districts, general election winners who push the party in the House and Senate to become an instrument of obstruction.
The highly visible presence of the candidates these voters prefer – recall the party’s Senate nominees in Missouri and Indiana, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, and their bizarre views on rape and abortion — suggests that the Republican Party has a severe, if not toxic, problem: a septic electorate that, in the words of the Mayo Clinic, “can trigger a cascade of changes that can damage multiple organ systems, causing them to fail.”
If that is the case, then the task of the Priebus commission should not have been to diagnose the party’s problems, but to conduct an autopsy.
Leaving that question aside for a moment, let’s turn to a part of the report that is tough in its implications, but less forcefully put than other sections of the document: the difficulties created by “super PACs” and other independent expenditure “third party” groups that have become a major presence in House and Senate elections. Without naming any super PACs, the five authors take a hard line against the role of these independent expenditure groups active in Republican primaries: “No one has a monopoly on knowing who is the best candidate; the electorate ultimately makes the decision.”
The authors agree with the substance of Karl Rove’s goal in the new Conservative Victory Project — that goal being to weed out marginal candidates in primaries who appeal to the base but alienate swing voters. The authors disagree, however, with the way in which the C.V.P. is going about this task, running negative ads against those likely to carry the party banner down to defeat in November. The Growth and Opportunity report is critical of all independent expenditure groups, including the anti-tax Club for Growth, that try to play kingmaker in the candidate selection process:
Outside groups now play an expanded role affecting federal races and, in some ways, overshadow state parties in primary and general elections. As a result, this environment has caused a splintered Congress with little party cohesion so that gridlock and polarization grow as the political parties lose their ability to rally their elected officeholders around a set of coherent governing policies.
Campaign finance laws and court rulings restrict mega-contributions to the parties while permitting $1 million-plus donations to independent groups, including the two other Rove political committees, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which, the report argues, corrupt the political environment:
The current campaign finance environment has led to a handful of friends and allied groups dominating our side’s efforts. This is not healthy. A lot of centralized authority in the hands of a few people at these outside organizations is dangerous for our Party.
In fairness to Rove – a phrase that does not come easily – his agenda does address the issue of a problematic Republican electorate: he aims to prevent ideologically driven voters from committing political suicide, dooming the party’s chances of winning a Senate majority.
I called Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the three Rove groups (American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and the Conservative Victory Project) to see how Rove and his allies picture this dynamic playing out. Collegio explained their thinking:
We looked at the last two election cycles and came to the conclusion that we lost from four to seven U.S. Senate seats not because of the party message, in those cases, but because of the party’s messenger.
While claiming that Rove’s new group does not have an anti-Tea Party agenda, Collegio said that in the four to seven Senate races that Republicans lost in 2010 and 2012, primaries produced “candidates who were suboptimal, not necessarily Tea Party candidates, but undisciplined, lacking fund-raising ability and substandard generally.”
Along the same lines as the Priebus report, Collegio cited the 2002 McCain-Feingold law, which prohibits political parties from accepting large “soft money” donations, arguing that it undermines the role of the R.N.C. and other official groups in mediating the political process. The vacuum created by McCain-Feingold served to empower renegade third party groups, one of the many unintended consequences of campaign finance reform. “The campaign finance reforms of the last decade,” Collegio told me
dramatically weakened political parties and artificially constrained the parties’ ability to raise large contributions. That structural change has the effect of empowering outside groups. We are in an era where power is not centralized in the parties because of campaign reforms of 10 years ago. The weakening of the parties, in turn, makes it harder for party leaders to cut deals on big pieces of legislation because they don’t control the electoral pocketbook the way they used to.
A rump group of conservatives disputes the Rove-Collegio analysis of Republican Senate losses, contending that centrist candidates backed by Rove’s American Crossroads fared far worse than those backed by the hard right. Nineteen conservatives, including David Bossie, president of Citizens United; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; and Richard Viguerie, chairman of Conservative HQ, wrote in a letter to American Crossroads donors (who are publicly listed in campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission):
In 2012, the only Senate Republican winners were Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Deb Fischer (Neb.), and Ted Cruz (Tex.) — all of whom enjoyed significant Tea Party and conservative support. Meanwhile, more moderate candidates like Tommy Thompson (Wisc.), Heather Wilson (N. Mex.), Rick Berg (N. Dak.), and Denny Rehberg (Mont.) went down to defeat despite significant support from Crossroads. It was firmly expected that Republicans would capture the Senate in 2012. It is inexcusable that they failed and, in fact, lost two seats. The facts speak for themselves. It was not conservatives. Not one moderate Republican challenger won. According to the Sunlight Foundation, not one Senate challenger supported by Crossroads won. There was another, equally important reason Republicans fared so poorly: Groups like Crossroads squandered hundreds of millions of dollars in what were arguably the most inept campaign advertising efforts ever.
A Republican operative who is a close associate of Rove was more ironic in his criticism of the C.V.P.: “If I was in a Republican primary and Karl Rove came out against me, it would be the single best thing that could happen to my campaign.”
Further fueling suspicions on the right of an anti-conservative vendetta led by Rove and the R.N.C., Rove and party leaders are working together to develop a high-tech digital platform designed to facilitate voter and donor contact and to replicate the major advances in digital campaigning achieved by the Obama campaign.
More broadly, the alliance between Rove and the R.N.C. does substantiate the view that establishment forces are driving the reform movement within the Republican Party, an establishment that includes much of corporate America, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Bush family and its allies, and the more moderate, traditionalist donor community.
Conservative analysts like Timothy P. Carney of the Washington Examiner and Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review quickly spotted the establishment tilt in the Priebus report.Carney wrote:
Republican elites tend to favor mass immigration and be ambivalent or supportive of legal abortion and gay marriage. So, shouldn’t we take it with a grain of salt when the Republican leadership puts out a document saying that the G.O.P. should change only its rhetoric on economic issues, but change its substance on social issues?
Similarly, Ponnuru wrote that the recommendations “come naturally to Republican elites” who “are more likely to favor same-sex marriage and comprehensive immigration reform on principle.” The report reflects “elite conventional wisdom perfectly, just perfectly.”
In January, I pointed out that “If the conservative movement continues on its downward trajectory, the American business community, which has the most to lose from Republican failure, will be the key force arguing for moderation.”
That moment has come. The Priebus report and Rove’s Conservative Victory Project together mark a significant escalation in the battle between the center and the right over the soul of the Republican Party. What has yet to be determined is whether they are fighting over a patient who can be quickly resuscitated or a patient with a chronic but not fatal illness — or a corpse.
The very bluntness of the Growth and Opportunity report reflects the seriousness of the moment the Republican Party faces: increasing difficulty holding on to its House majority; weakening prospects of regaining control of the Senate; and the threat of unending Democratic control of the White House.
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