Perhaps trying to eke some mojo out of the city where the Democrats held their successful convention last year, the Republican National Committee came out of a three-day meeting in Charlotte, N.C., this week with a blueprint for what the dispirited party hopes is a way out of the post-election weeds.
The meeting confirmed what most Americans can see plainly: The Party of Lincoln is having a crisis of confidence. The failure of Mitt Romney to connect deeply enough to win a race against a vulnerable Democratic incumbent shook the party establishment, which is already dealing with a powerful internecine and absolutist revolt from right-wingers in the guise of the tea party.
For Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the battle is to reach out to new demographics and beef up the party's moribund ground game, but also to shift the conversation away from "government bookkeeping" to dinner table dilemmas – all while remaining relevant against an attempt by President Obama to, in effect, "pulverize" the party, in the words of Slate columnist John Dickerson.
Though many Republicans believe the cure is for the party to run even harder on fiscal principles – lower taxes, lower spending, give me liberty or give me death – it may well be the party's success in breaking out its "older white guy" mold that defines its fortunes in 2014 and beyond, and calibrates it for battles with Obama that are likely to define America for generations.
"The Republicans are dead in the water right now … they're an aging white party in a country that is less white each year," syndicated columnist Mark Shields told the PBS NewsHour Friday night.
It's a healthy and necessary debate, to be sure, for a party that serves as a counterweight to America's more progressive tendencies, as embodied by the reelection of President Obama – the man who has overseen the massive $5.8 trillion increase in the national debt.
While Obama is likely to use his second term to strengthen the Democratic fortress in hopes of further weakening the Republicans, there's plenty of ground that can be won by conservatives. After all, the country remains center-right on issues from abortion to gun control, and insecurity about the national debt runs across party lines and across regional and income demographics. Moreover, the party has built a serious stable of potential leadership contenders, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz
What Republicans say the party as a whole, as well as various candidates, have largely failed to do, however, is consider voters as people instead of numbers on a campaign consultant's chart.
In the process, experts say Republicans have failed to grasp how Americans are concerned about the economy and the debt, but also about policing and their neighborhood schools. Yes, they want their taxes spent more wisely, and most don't want an expansion of the welfare state (on the idea that permanent welfare inhibits the American dream), but they also see the power of compassion and remain concerned about family or friends in the military.
Last year, multitudes of potential GOP voters swung into the Obama column, because, as Mr. Shields said, "people found the other side to be more relevant, more real, and more plausible to their lives than they found [the GOP]."
Gov. Jindal – one of the party's most promising back-benchers – agreed, saying in remarks Thursday that Republicans need to "re-orient our focus to the place where conservatism thrives – in the real world beyond the Washington Beltway."
"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," Mr. Jindal added. "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 must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth."
Mr. Priebus added to that sentiment, telling the RNC that "it's time to stop looking at elections through the lens of battleground states – being a 'blue state' is not a permanent diagnosis."
New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks said on the PBS NewsHour Friday night that it is, indeed, a sort of born-and-bred insularity that's hobbling the GOP, but that trait is noticeable even when populist up-and-comers like Jindal try to break out of that shell.
"A lot of smart Republicans understand the problem, but even in the Jindal speech, it's as if conservatives have learned to speak a special language within themselves …" Mr. Brooks said. "Jindal said some smart things, but he's still locked within a prism of code words. He doesn't tell a story about what it's like to be a waitress in Ohio or a struggling worker in Texas. It is hard to get outside the mental framework you've grown up in, and it takes pain to force you out."
For now, Republicans say they'll focus less on changing the message than tweaking the messenger. Talk of beefing up the party's ground game and social media activities dominated much of the discussion, as did "tone" – how ill-chosen words by a few candidates, including Mr. Romney, helped shade perceptions and weaken the party's message.
"There certainly is a lot of talk about tone," RNC official Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, told reporters. "There are too many times that we have had candidates who have come across as hostile."
But if Republicans tweak the messaging and then look to the next wave of Republican candidates to foment a new deal with the American people, the party did leave Charlotte with what appeared to be genuine interest in having a more empathetic and down-to-earth conversation with the American people.
"One message is loud and clear from the 2012 election," said Ari Fleischer, President George Bush's former spokesman and a member of an RNC effort to restore the party's competitiveness. "Many voters found that Republicans were not inclusive."