We talked to some of the smartest minds in Republican politics, and their prognosis is pretty grim. They think it will take pretty big changes — and possibly many, many years — to repair a Republican brand sullied by excessive spending, an unpopular war and an even more unpopular president.
Republicans are deeply divided over how dramatic changes should be and how precisely to change things. But there appears to be an emerging consensus on six steps they must take — and soon. What follows are the composite views of key Republicans we interviewed.
1. Get a clue: Republicans desperately need to cook up some new ideas and craft an attractive agenda to have any chance of success. Former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney says it should be a modern edition of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.”
“It’s critical that our candidates have a very clear set of principles,” Romney says. “If we are ill-defined or, worse, if we’re defined by the failures of the administration or the failure of Congress in the last eight to 10 years, then we’re going to lose.”
The name of the agenda doesn’t matter, but the substance does. Voters no longer think lean government, smart and strong defense, and good old-fashioned family values when they think Republican. They think reckless spenders, misguided war and hypocrisy. Republicans “don’t have a vision,” says former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). “Their behavior is being governed by a bad political model, and we’re losing races.”
Republicans need to focus on cutting taxes, slashing spending and rediscovering their edge on national security matters. More important, they need to jump ahead of Democrats in thinking anew about entitlement programs, health care, technological innovation, global trade and new energy plans.
Bill Frist, the former Senate majority leader and now a visiting professor at Princeton University, also recommends the “big idea” approach. His prescription: “Take on health care in a way that focuses on consumer-driven health,” providing “a contrast to the big government of Democrats.”
2. Cut the crap: Republicans are dominating Democrats in one area right now: humiliating sex scandals. If former Rep. Mark Foley isn’t e-mailing young male pages or Sen. Larry Craig isn’t playing footsie in the bathroom, then Rep. Vito J. Fossella’s getting busted driving drunk and then admitting he fathered a love child. You can’t run on family values when you don’t practice them.
This is no laughing matter to many Republicans. Voters don’t pay much attention to Congress unless there is a good scandal or bad spending, and the GOP has provided a generous supply of both. It has to purge scandal-stained members, swear off boondoggle spending projects and promote — and more importantly adhere to — strong ethical standards, GOP officials say.
Democrats are likely to control Congress for several years, so if Republicans can clean up their act, they can put the focus back on the members of the governing party and their behavior.
“The congressional leadership needs to be very proactive in addressing anything with a potential whiff of scandal forthrightly and immediately and with dispatch,” says former White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein.
3. Beg for help: The Republican infrastructure is crumbling. Making matters worse, Democrats are erecting a pretty impressive network of donors, think tanks and activist groups that is exploiting the GOP’s structural weakness. The GOP “needs to realize what the opposition is and how formidable it is,” said former GOP leader Tom DLay (R-Texas). “The Democratic Party is organized chaos, but it is so much better than what we are doing.” It will take no less than three to five years to fix, smart Republicans estimate.
For now, Republicans need their rich backers to crack open their wallets. Democrats such as George Soros are so much more willing than rich Republicans to fund get-out-the-vote operations and clever negative campaigns. The GOP needs to somehow cajole its big donors to fork over millions of dollars to counter Democrats and then achieve a competitive edge.
It needs to be smart while spending it, too. Influential Republicans feel the party must fortify intellectual think tanks, establish new activist groups and get a clue about using the Internet to rally its forces. The GOP also needs to fund programs to train young Republican candidates and activists.
“There is an entire infrastructure that needs to be thought through, and it seems to me no one is interested in building that,” said former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.).
4. Burn the Bush: There is something honorable about loyalty. But taken too far, it can start to look downright loony to voters. President Bush is as unpopular as Richard Nixon was in the days before his resignation. Cut him loose — quick, says Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). “We can go our own way with our own programs, and even disassociate ourselves from President Bush,” Davis said in a memo to fellow Republicans.
In some cases, say GOP leaders, Republicans should cozy up to presumptive presidential nominee John McCain, who remains popular with many swing voters. In others, they should simply run on their own merits and promise to pay attention to local concerns. But under no circumstances should they stand by their man in the White House. It won’t be easy, because so many marched obediently to the Bush tune for so long. But voters have short memories — exploit that.
5. Change the pitch — and your face: Several well-known Republicans said the party needs fresh, reassuring packaging and a more diverse crowd to deliver it.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said it’s time to return to a family values message — backed up by ideas families actually like. “Our reforms and beliefs need to be framed in the context of how they help families. A family-friendly focus is really important, given the angst that people feel these days.”
The image of the white men’s club needs to go, too, says Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “The country is changing. The Republican Party has to have a message that reflects faces and voices of America. We have to do a better job of recruiting women candidates, candidates of color and diversity.”
6. Fan the fear: Ignore the critics, Republican wise men say — there is still no better way to win than to stir up concerns about Democratic patriotism and their commitment to national security and killing terrorists. It often remains the best call in the GOP playbook, especially with McCain atop the ticket.
Republican officials privately urge lawmakers to whack their opponents whenever they can for worrying more about coddling terrorist suspects than condemning them, failing to support U.S. troops, exhibiting weakness in dealing with dictators, and rushing to a quick Iraq exit that could put U.S. servicemen and women at risk. Polls still show GOP strength on national security and fighting terrorism — at least when compared with their lousy numbers on domestic issues.