Why the GOP Likes Political Consultants More Than Grassroots Heroes

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 18 2013 8:08 PM

Habeas GOP

The Republican Party’s autopsy of its 2012 loss puts political expediency over principles. Now it just needs to find a body to lead it.

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus gestures while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Monday, March 18, 2013.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Monday.

Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

If the first step to recovery is admitting you have problem, then can you speed the process by being really frank about it? The Republican National Committee is testing this theory. The RNC “autopsy” on the 2012 election is a bracing critique. Formally known as the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” its authors say that at the national level, Republicans turn off all but the most faithful. It sharpens its critique by quoting focus groups of former Republicans who described the party as “scary,” “narrow minded,” “out of touch,” and as the party of “stuffy, old men.” If they admit it all now, and fast, they’ll be on the road to recovery in time for 2016

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Unless Republicans broaden the base of the party by reaching out to minorities, women, and young voters in new ways, says the report, “it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.” Do you disagree? If you do, it might be because you’re cocooned in a party that has become expert in “how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people” but has long lost the ability to persuade anyone who isn’t already an elephant-pin-wearing member.

The 100-page document, compiled by veteran Republican operatives, including Henry Barbour and George Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer, lands (thump!) in the middle of a raucous debate.* What does the Republican Party stand for? How much must it change? Who knows the way out of the wilderness? Is it the noble but undisciplined grassroots, or the professional class of strategists, pollsters, and operatives? For three days last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, movement conservatives lashed out at the consultants and establishment toadies who have sold out their cause by watering down conservatism. And as if on cue—affirming their every fear—the RNC produced this report. On almost every issue the report addresses—minority outreach, the primary schedule, and the importance of quantitative analysis over conservative gut checks—the RNC autopsy reads like the party establishment’s manual for reasserting its control over the party.

What makes this moment in Republican politics so fascinating is that the central issues of political life are up for grabs. What do people want from their government? What should the government try to be—something that helps them with their problems or something that gets out of the way and lets them lead their lives? The answer of course is both, but the Republican Party is having difficulty finding the balance. Forces that once bound them together are disintegrating. President Obama is no longer a unifying enemy and the GOP has no clear and obvious future frontrunner to show them the way.

The issues are familiar and date back to the origin story of the modern GOP. “I am impatient with those Republicans who after the last election rushed into print saying, ‘We must broaden the base of our party,’ ” said Ronald Reagan in 1975. “What they meant was to fuzz up and blur even more the differences between ourselves and our opponents.”

That same sentiment is alive today among conservatives who are apt to read the report’s call for a “more welcoming conservatism,” as an attempt to water down ideology that should be celebrated.

Rand Paul wants to modernize the Republican Party, too. He called it “stale and moss-covered” last week at CPAC. His political pitch is very similar to Reagan’s from long ago. The voters to reach for are the ones who have become disgusted by politics and don’t even bother to vote. So, offer them a clear choice. “If we are going to have a Republican Party that can win, liberty needs to be the backbone of the GOP,” he said. “There are millions of Americans, young and old, native and immigrant, black, white, and brown, who simply seek to live free, free to practice their religion, free to choose where they send their kids to school, free to choose their own health care, free to keep the fruit of their own labor, free to live without government constantly being on their back.”

The new RNC strategy document is moving in the other direction. It argues against the constant talk of cutting spending and argues that GOP candidates should support a more activist vision of government. “To people who are flat on their back, unemployed or disabled and in need of help,” say the authors, “they do not care if the help comes from the private sector or the government—they just want help.” (The dreaded pollsters have support for this notion).

When talking about trying to attract more women voters, the report cites the liberal Center for American Progress as an authority. CAP’s poll said the second most important issue for women voters in 2012 was choosing “a candidate who will fight for them.” The report continues: “Our candidates, spokespeople and staff need to use language that addresses concerns that are on women’s minds in order to let them know we are fighting for them.”

Paul is making a case for how his principle can be good politics. The RNC report starts by reading the political landscape and then fitting the politics on that slope. But that doesn’t mean surrendering one’s principles, argue the report’s authors. They have a model for the kind of politically savvy conservatives who have found a synthesis between principle and electoral success: the GOP’s 30 elected governors. When Scott Walker talks about fighting for the middle class, it doesn’t sound conspiratorial. “People in the middle need to feel that someone is fighting for them. They want someone who will fundamentally look out for them as a voter.”

The authors of the report say they are not a policy committee, so while the report is very specific about the need to hire more female spokespeople, demographic sensitivity courses for candidates, and a program to train ethnic conservatives, it is silent on what kinds of policies might actually appeal to the groups the GOP needs to target. That makes the suggestions often feel unreal. It’s much like my plan for being a successful novelist. It includes millions of readers and sold-out book events in big cities across the land. That’s all fine, but I’m just not sure how to write the book. The authors say the GOP is woefully out of touch with younger voters and that those voters care about civil rights. What they’re talking about is greater support for same-sex marriage, but they dare not speak its name.

One policy idea is too electorally important to ignore, however. “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” write the authors. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” They argue that Hispanic voters will not open their ears to hear other GOP policies if this impediment is not removed. This fact is considered such an accepted truth it is presented with no evidence.

The mix between principle and political expediency is a strange alchemy, and it takes place inside the hearts and minds of the politician (those who have both). What movement conservatives are worrying about is that the Republican Party establishment is institutionalizing the GOP’s capitulation on core beliefs by setting up rules that discourage the grassroots and empower the consultants. That’s what was behind the repeated attacks on strategists at this year’s CPAC. “Now is the time to furlough the consultants and tune out the pollsters!” said Sarah Palin. “Send the focus groups home and toss the political scripts because if we truly know what we believe, we don’t need professionals to tell us!”

Conservatives are right to be suspicious of an overreliance on numerology. It is a favorite tool of the professionals, not the grassroots. If the party orientation turns toward hitting certain targets among voter groups like Hispanics, Asians, and women, the strategists and number crunchers will just try to hit those targets and make the numbers go up. It institutionalizes the political targets over principle.

The report’s section labeled “campaign mechanics” calls for an entire rewrite of the Republican playbook based on “a new culture driven by data, technology, analytics, and personal contact.” If this happens, it will only further empower the college of political Beltway elites and encourage groupthink. Of course, grassroots heroes won’t like the sound of providing data-based arguments over folk wisdom and wit. Then again, echoing the momentary passions of the crowd might sound good on talk radio but turn off the kinds of voters you need to actually win elections.

The report also calls for a shorter primary season and fewer debates. The idea is to keep the party nominee from getting too bloodied during the process, thus weakening him or her for the general election. But debates and multiple contests—particularly in caucuses where long-shot candidates got to know the voters—helped insurgent candidates. The problem, say GOP donors and strategists, is that caucus contests made up of only the most ardent conservatives distort the race when a pet-rock candidate begins to seem viable.

Though the results of the 2012 GOP autopsy were financed by the party, that doesn’t mean they’ll be adopted. Some of the structural changes will depend on votes within the Republican National Committee and the thematic changes will rely on a person who can lead the party. Right now Republicans don’t have a national leader, and they probably won’t until the next presidential campaign. So we won’t really know whether the findings of this autopsy will survive or not, at least not until the GOP first finds itself a body.

Correction, March 19, 2013: This article mistakenly named Haley Barbour as an author of the GOP report. It was Henry Barbour. (Return.)

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