It's Saturday morning at a pizzeria in Arlington, Va., and the Republican Party may have just discovered the key to its comeback. "Free pizza for everybody all day!" jokes Mitt Romney, perched on a stool next to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Just kidding, Romney says: "This is not a Democrat establishment."
The suggestion fits the event's theme: Let no idea go untried. Drumming up new solutions is themission of the National Council for a New America, a coalition of Republican leaders announced last week and led by Cantor. In the coming months, top leaders will travel around the country soliciting ideas from average Americans and figuring out how to, in so many words, un-screw the GOP.
"Our party has taken its licks over the last couple of cycles," says Cantor. "But that's why we're here."
For the kickoff event, a few dozen local Republicans—including names like Grover Norquist—packed into Pie-tanza, a small restaurant in a suburban strip mall, to see Romney, Cantor, and Bush discuss the GOP's future.
The conversation steered clear of hot-button issues like gay marriage and immigration, focusing instead on the economy, health care, and education. Questions tended toward the softball. How would Republicans help small businesses? (Lower taxes, free up capital.) How does the Employee Free Choice Act affect business? (It's "the biggest misnomer I've seen," said Cantor.) How do we fight back against the Obama administration's high taxes and overreach? (Educate voters.)
Ideas? Absolutely. New? Meh. The conversation rarely moved into specifics. Cantor wants more "dialoguing." One volunteer, Brian Summers, gave a pep talk arguing that "We need to give America something to say yes to." Romney painted the differences between Republicans and Democrats in Revolutionary-era terms: "We are the party of the revolutionaries. They are the party of the monarchists."
The most original ideas came from perhaps the most establishment person in the room: Jeb Bush. When someone asked about how to make college affordable, Bush proposed incentivizing tuition by charging different amounts for different degrees. "We need nurses, scientists, engineers, qualified teachers. … If the government is going to subsidize at the fed level, there needs to be strategic nature to it," he said.
Bush also did the best job at framing classic policy problems in terms conservatives like. For example, he said, the United States lags behind other countries in academics. If American students reached the same level as Finns and Koreans, we'd increase GNP by $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion a year. If we closed the achievement gap within the United States, we'd save $400 billion. In other words, improve education not for squishy social reasons but for hard-boiled economic ones.
Bush also played the political wise man—the guy who, even at a spry 56, has been around forever and seen everything. His wisdom: This won't last forever. "I've seen conservatives move up and conservatives move down," he said, "liberals move up and liberals move down." He gave credit where credit is due. The Democrats "have something," he said. "I don't like it, but they have it." Obama's remarkable rise was "a tribute to our country" in which Republican should take solace. "That will happen to us, too."
The question hovering over the proceedings—as over the party in general—was, should Republicans compromise or stand strong? Moderate their views or embrace conservatism? The answer coming out of this group seemed to be, Yes. On the one hand, said Cantor, "We should be an inclusive party." On the other, "the essence of being a Republican is a belief in free markets, a belief in individual responsibility, faith in the individual, faith in God."
Exactly how the party evolves into 21st century yet stays true to its roots remains unclear. No one was willing to say that the GOP should start running more moderate candidates. Nor would anyone suggest, as Sen. Lindsey Graham did, that Republicans are hurt by the tax-cutting litmus tests of organizations like the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform. (Especially not with Norquist in the audience.) Everyone emphasized that this is just the beginning. "It's just getting started," said Romney, when I asked him which new idea he liked most. "I wouldn't possibly select one idea." They'll save the tough questions for another pizzeria.