Can the GOP move past tea party "number crunching"?

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 28: The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen on Capitol Hill August 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. It has been reported that the dome has 1,300 known cracks and breaks leaking water to the interior of the Rotunda and needs restorations. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $61 million before the August recess to repair the structure. On Monday, Committee on Rules and Administration chairman Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) called on Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) to support the repairs. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

For the past two years, since winning back control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party has had a remarkably singular focus on cutting government spending.

The debt limit needs to be raised? Not without cutting spending. New Jersey needs emergency relief funds after a hurricane? Some conservatives first wanted to find a way to offset those costs.

The focus on spending was far from a surprise: The GOP made huge gains in the 2010 election on a wave of tea party zeal based on concerns about President Obama's government overreach. The debt, meanwhile, has increased $5.8 trillion under Mr. Obama's leadership. The attention on this issue, however, hasn't paid off in the polls or the ballot box. The president easily won re-election last year, while Democrats made gains in both the House and the Senate. The latest CBS News/ New York Times poll shows that congressional Republicans have just a 19 percent approval rating.

With the 2012 elections behind them, the Republican Party is now trying to regroup. A week after House Republicans met behind closed doors to ponder their future, GOP leaders are gathering at the Republican National Committee (RNC)'s winter meeting this week in Charlotte, N.C., to discuss the way forward, which means moving beyond spending cuts.

"Today's conservatism is completely wrapped up in solving the hideous mess that is the federal budget, the burgeoning deficits, the mammoth federal debt, the shortfall in our entitlement programs...even as we invent new entitlement programs," Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said at the meeting last night. "We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping. This is a rigged game, and it is the wrong game for us to play."

"We as Republicans have to accept that government number crunching - even conservative number crunching - is not the answer to our nation's problems," Jindal continued. "We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth."

Moving away from a message of austerity will be difficult, given that Congress must still decide whether to avert the looming "sequestration" cuts set to kick in March 1. They must also in the coming months raise the nation's debt limit while explaining to voters what it means for the nation's bills and for the nation's future spending. But even as they broach these thorny issues, GOP leaders say they need to do a better job explaining their economic positions to voters, working on other issues and expanding their appeal beyond their conservative base.

Jindal and other leaders stress that one of their most immediate challenges is simply recalibrating their message -- not changing their principles.

"We have to a better job connecting the dots for the American people," Republican strategist Terry Holt told Holt worked as a senior communication strategist for three presidential campaigns, including the Bush-Cheney campaigns, and served as communications director for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

"Concerns that Republicans have about the debt and deficit have to be translated into the everyday impact it has on average Americans," Holt continued. "We often have this problem when we talk about 'entitlement reform' -- those words aren't particularly effective in communicating what the crisis is there. When we talk about fixing Medicare, it's often in budgetary terms. Or when we should be talking about making health care better, we're instead talking about making health care cheaper."