The soft Republicanism of the National Council for a New America.

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April 30 2009 6:06 PM

Mr. Cantor's Neighborhood

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John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

Change has indeed come to Washington. The GOP is going on a listening tour.

Republican leaders announced Thursday—after leaking it before President Obama's press conference Wednesday—the creation of a new group called the National Council for a New America. It's easier to say what the NCNA isn't than what it is. It's not a nonprofit—or a for-profit. It's not a fundraising organization. It's not a partisan apparatus or subwing of the RNC. It is, in the words of an NCNA spokesman, "a caucus seeking to find the solutions that will improve the lives of every American."

OK. So what does it do? Over the next few months, the NCNA will hold a series of town-hall meetings around the country in order to "engage people in a discussion" and drum up new conservative policy ideas. The point, according to one of its founders, is to "take the discussion outside of Washington, to make sure ideas shaping policy here in Washington is coming from outside and from the American people."

Sounds great. So anyone can join? Yes! The NCNA is officially nonpartisan. Its introductory letter uses the word "Republican" only twice—once to emphasize that "this is not a Republican-only forum."

So who's in charge of this nonpartisan organization? Well, Republican House Minority Whip Eric Cantor is heading it up. Then there's House Minority Leader John Boehner, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, Pete Sessions, Roy Blunt, Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, Lamar Alexander, John Cornyn, and John Thune. They've also reached out to Sarah Palin, but no word yet on whether she'll be participating.

If you're wondering where the "nonpartisan" part comes in, you'll have to wait. The NCNA has not gotten around to inviting any Democrats yet. (Or to putting up a Web site, for that matter.) And no Democrats have thus far reported an interest in joining.

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Dubious branding aside, the NCNA may be just what the Republican Party needs. In the 101 days of his presidency, Obama has held several town halls, most recently in Arnold, Mo. When he can't travel, he stays in touch by reading and responding to letters from across the country.

Republicans have a tougher time showing that they've got their ears to the ground. Without a clear leader, they can't dramatically skip town all at once. The NCNA could change that.

It also signals a deliberate tone change, emphasizing sharing, cooperation, and openness—not exactly Republican bywords. "[N]ow we must listen, learn and lead through an honest, open conversation with the American people," says the letter introducing the NCNA. They're also trying to be inclusive. "There's no one who's not been invited to join," said Cantor, when asked why Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman wasn't on the roster. "We'd certainly extend an invitation to Gov. Huntsman and whoever else." As far as issues, they've picked five: the economy, health care, education, energy, and national security—dodging, as Ben Smith points out, delicate social issues like immigration and gay marriage.

They know what you're thinking: "This is not a quote 'rebranding' effort," said McCain on a conference call Thursday. "It's an effort to include as many Americans as possible from across the ideological spectrum and come up with solutions that help our country and our future." On the one hand, that's like saying, "This is not a scam!" On the other, maybe he's right: If you were trying to sex up your brand, the "National Council for a New America" is probably not the name you would choose.

It does raise the question, though: Isn't this the Republican National Committee's job? It's the party's public face. It controls national strategy. It has even started a site dedicated to ginning up grassroots ideas. But the RNC draws a distinction. "The RNC doesn't do policy," says Communications Director Trevor Francis. "We do campaigns and elections." They'll be watching NCNA to see what ideas it comes up with, he says. But aside from that, the RNC is not in the think-tank business. (The financial scuffle within the RNC probably doesn't make it an attractive ally, either.)

The NCNA makes its first foray Saturday, when it ventures deep into heartland America: a restaurant in Northern Virginia.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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