The Republican Party's Road to Recovery

Tim Alberta
January 24, 2013

Step 1: Admit the Problem

The modern Republican Party has a disease.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of; everyone has a relative who has been afflicted with the same malady, loves someone who has gone through it. President Obama’s Democratic Party has an uncle, John Kerry’s Democratic Party, that had the sickness. And its uncle, Walter Mondale’s Democratic Party, had a case that might have had one of the worse cases anyone has ever seen.

Such a crippling condition is widely observed and freely diagnosed. There is no shortage of advice. But, ultimately, it’s up to the patient to accept and admit something is wrong. And after a decade in denial, the GOP seems to have finally reached that point.

Some addicts are confronted through an intervention. Others run to Oprah. In the case of a political party that appears to have lost the capacity to win national elections, redemption starts with establishing something called the Growth and Opportunity Project, a five-member group tasked with identifying the party’s foremost problems and solutions for moving forward. Consider it the Washington version of a cry for help.

One thing is already clear: Recovery won’t be quick, easy, or painless. There are no Band-Aids capable of closing the wounds opened by years of self-mutilating politics. The GOP faces complex problems that require comprehensive solutions. “Our policy and our messaging go hand in hand,” says one of the panel’s members, Sally Bradshaw, who is a longtime Florida-based strategist. She argues that the Republicans are incapable of restoring their brand “until both improve,” stressing: “You can’t work on one without the other.”

Admitting the problem is always the first, and the most difficult, step in any rehabilitation process. Republicans, having suffered consecutive general-election defeats brought on by conditions capable of creating a permanent political minority, are at last stepping to the lectern and clearing their throats.

“We evolve, or we become extinct,” says Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican whose inherited libertarian gene stands out in Washington but has proved more popular in the provinces. The postelection math demonstrates plainly that if the GOP cannot amplify its appeal to Hispanic, younger, and female voters, among others, it will be forced to resort to the type of redistricting chicanery that anchored its House majority last year to keep any measure of national power. “If we can’t figure out how to grow and appeal to those other groups, we’ll become extinct. We already are essentially extinct on the West Coast and in New England,” Paul says.

The party needs to change, and if it can do so without committing what some will deem betrayal of its principles, all the better. But the demographic clock is ticking quickly, and not in Republicans’ favor. In the 2012 presidential election, GOP pollster Glen Bolger notes, “we held Democrats to 39 percent of the white vote” and still lost. “I don’t know that you can push them much lower than that.”

Much of what’s necessary is already understood. The party needs dynamic and diverse candidates, and much ink has already been disgorged on how Sen. Marco Rubio or Govs. Susana Martinez or Bobby Jindal could resuscitate the Republican brand. The party needs to locate a coherent message and, ideally, pair it with policies that attract, rather than repel, voters, says Dave Carney, adviser to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign and a veteran of the George H.W. Bush White House. “We absolutely need to get out of this mind-set that says we only need to campaign to people who think like we do.”

But, by definition, they need to do so without shedding any more of their core voters than they absolutely have to. Indeed, Republicans face a paradox that is equal parts political and mathematical: how to maximize their gains while minimizing their losses. Carney says, “The idea that we need to change our beliefs and our values and our philosophy to appeal to new people means that we don’t respect the philosophy and values of the 65 million people who are already with us.... We didn’t lose because we’re conservative, and we’re not going to win by being more liberal. We’re not going to be the better liberals.”

The Growth and Opportunity panel knows the obvious, that the party’s stammering on immigration is destructive, that gay rights has overtaken the GOP in the minds of the electorate in many parts of the country, that diehard conservatives have not lionized their party’s nominee since Ronald Reagan. From a strategic standpoint, they know they’ve fallen dangerously behind the Democrats, whose organizational advantage in 2012 was unprecedented. These are symptoms of a devastating illness, one that can be cured only with a commitment to incremental improvement. Admitting the problem is the first step. And, after conversations with more than two dozen party officials, activists and strategists, here are 11 more.

Step 2: Go Outside Your Comfort Zone

When Mitt Romney told a crowd of wealthy donors last year that 47 percent of Americans would never vote for him, he unwittingly legitimized the long-held notion that Republicans view certain segments of the electorate as unworthy of engagement. African-Americans, union members, welfare recipients, the poor—these groups’ unwillingness to vote Republican is predestined by the GOP’s unwillingness to ask for their votes in the first place. The 2012 election, in which Romney, appropriately, won 47 percent of the vote, starkly demonstrates that such an approach is “dinosauric,” as Carney puts it.

The proof is in the pudding. On only a handful of occasions during the 2012 race did the Republican ticket venture into truly hostile, unfamiliar territory. These infrequent forays—Romney’s visit to a predominantly black school in Philadelphia, running mate Paul Ryan’s poverty speech in Cleveland, Romney’s address to the NAACP convention—were defined by two themes. First, they skipped safe, suburban stops targeting wealthy, white voters in favor of unscripted, urban events targeting low-income and minority voters. Second, they were essentially token gestures aimed at assuring the former audience of the party’s compassion rather than convincing the latter audience of its commitment to their cause.

“The Republican Party has always been very good at saying, ‘We include everyone,’ but they’ve never taken time to show it,” says South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Her point invites the fundamental question: Do Republicans ignore these communities because they don’t want to engage them, or because they don’t know how? “It all starts with relationships,” says former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., an African-American who has long called on his party to reach out to new constituencies. “We think that we can attract people to the party without having relationships with them. But we don’t know them. And they don’t know us. The black community doesn’t know the Republican Party. The Hispanic community doesn’t know the Republican Party.”

Indeed, Republicans have long espoused rhetorical aspirations of “lifting up” the downtrodden and “providing opportunity” for the poor, but when it comes to delivering such promises in person, the GOP has been AWOL. “The messaging doesn’t matter if you’re not reaching out,” Haley says. “It’s not what you say; it’s what you do.” Watts takes it a step further: “In politics, outreach without relationships leads to rejection.”

Now that they’ve been roundly rejected in consecutive elections, Republicans finally sound willing to walk the walk. That means campaigning vigorously in urban areas and aggressively courting the minority vote—and knowing that those efforts won’t yield immediate dividends. “Winning back these voters is not going to happen with an event, or a 5-point plan. It’s going to take hard work,” says Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Romney’s presidential campaigns. “The effort to win back some of these groups may seem fruitless, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It’s often said that in politics, demography is destiny. With white voters constituting a shrinking slice of the electorate, Republicans can no longer afford to ignore these “nontraditional” voters. It’s perhaps the hardest, and most important, lesson learned from 2012. “We can never, ever again adopt this mentality,” Madden says, his voice dripping with regret, “that a large section of the American electorate is off-limits to Republicans.”

Step 3: Speak Their Language

The Republican Party must solve what Bolger calls a “math problem” that’s straightforward and startling: Hispanics are the fastest-growing faction of the American electorate, and only 27 percent of them punched the GOP ticket in 2012. If demography is destiny, the party faces an existential crisis; unaddressed, it is capable of rendering Republicans uncompetitive in national elections for decades to come.

To their credit, Republicans seem to be viewing last year’s results as a blessing in disguise, an overdue wake-up call for the party to recalibrate its rhetoric on the issue that largely created this demographic disconnect: immigration. Republicans “have become very doctrinaire on the issue of immigration,” says conservative activist and RedState editor Erick Erickson. Bolger says, “We’ve been tending to give the middle finger to Hispanic voters.” Republicans have sounded “harsh, strange, and impractical,” when speaking about immigration, concurs veteran GOP strategist Fred Malek. Almost across the board, Republican politicians, having stepped back to survey the damage, are reaching the same painful conclusion: Their harsh rhetoric synthesized with obstructionist attitudes to create a perfect political storm driving Hispanics straight into the Democratic camp.

Having belatedly identified the problem, GOP insiders now sound genuinely determined to fix it. In conversations with several dozen party leaders, a broad consensus emerged that their top priority should be tempering their message, starting with a fundamental acknowledgement that immigration is a human issue as much as it is an economic or security matter. “We’re talking about people here, not just numbers,” says Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative organization.

She blames the ethnic exodus to Democrats on callous GOP rhetoric that stereotyped Hispanics and addressed them as a monolith. “When you start talking about immigration in terms of ‘us versus them,’ you’re turning off the Hispanic community, even the documented Hispanic community,” Korn says. “It becomes an anti-Hispanic issue.”

But while Republicans universally accede to the urgency of fixing their message, such a consensus does not exist on the policy front. Amid renewed calls for pathways to citizenship, conservative hard-liners continue to question whether such concessions would reap any political dividends. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, author of Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law, recalls what happened after Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty package in 1986:

Republicans won a significantly smaller percentage of the Hispanic vote in 1988 (30 percent) than they had in 1980 (35 percent) or 1984 (37 percent). For that reason, among others, Kobach believes that the “law and order” stance continues to be “the most advantageous position” for the GOP. “We can improve our outreach and expand and amplify our message ... without embracing amnesty,” he says. “We don’t have to abandon our principles to improve our message.” Still, more and more Republicans are questioning what their “principles” call for. For a party that stresses the value of family and community, prescribing “self-deportation” as your primary policy solution seems disingenuous.

Moving forward, Republicans would do well to reject the false choice between being the “pro-amnesty” party and the “self-deportation” party. A middle ground exists, one with serious policy solutions complementing a softer tone and a more realistic message. Whether Republicans discover it could very well determine their party’s political prosperity for generations.

Step 4: Go Big On Education

If immigration is the most dangerous policy issue facing Republicans, education is viewed as the most politically advantageous. Recent polling shows public dissatisfaction with public-school performance at an all-time high, and with Democrats hamstrung by their allegiance to teachers unions—one of the country’s truly commanding special interests—Republicans are ideally positioned to lead on an issue with an unlimited political upside. Even though education policy is forged primarily at the state and local level, Republicans are confident that the issue transcends ideology and resonates across demographic divides, and they appear poised to orchestrate a long-overdue offensive aimed at pushing issues such as school choice and teacher accountability to the forefront of the national political dialogue.

Artur Davis, the former House member from Alabama who last year defected from the Democratic Party to the GOP, captures the sentiment of many when he says of education reform, “No other issue even comes close in its potential for the Republican Party.” Across the board, party strategists are strikingly bullish on education, and mostly for the same two reasons. First, fighting for better schools reinforces the bedrock Republican principles of opportunity, competition, and family values; second, they believe Democrats are increasingly beholden to teachers unions and would never risk a conflict with that powerful constituency by spearheading serious reforms to union-patrolled school systems.

Buried beneath those strategic political layers, however, lies an abrasively populist argument about “fairness.” Education-reform advocates argue that America’s public schools are failing to facilitate social mobility among those who need it most: low-income students (many of them minority) living in urban environments with lower funding and less parental involvement than children in suburban school districts enjoy. “Education is the civil-rights issue of our era” was how Romney explained it on the campaign trail last year. That message resonates beyond the Republican base because it speaks to “upward mobility,” says Henry Barbour, a member of the Republican National Committee and another of the five Growth and Opportunity Project panelists.

Davis acknowledges the political advantage of fighting for equality in education and says that school-reform efforts, especially those concentrated in urban areas, could provide “a huge opening” for the GOP to make inroads with traditional Democratic constituencies. “If we can help low-income kids have access to private schools ... and create more accountability in public education,” Davis predicts, “it’s a winning message for Republicans all across the country.”

Step 5: Let the Libertarian Flag Fly

There’s been only one “revolution” attached to the Republican Party in the quarter-century since Ronald Reagan vacated the White House, and it wasn’t inspired by Romney or John McCain but rather by their unlikeliest rival—Ron Paul. Although he twice failed to claim his party’s presidential nomination, the recently retired House member served notice to the GOP establishment in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns that a new era of Republicanism was stirring beneath the political surface: a youthful insurrection defined by less government intrusion and more personal freedom.

GOP strategist Karl Rove, the famed “architect” of George W. Bush’s two presidential victories, says libertarianism “has always been the most attractive gateway” for Republicans to seduce young voters. “The difference this time around,” Rove adds, “is that some of the libertarian appeal is driven by drugs,” a platform that he argued is incompatible with mainstream Republicanism. “My sense is that economic libertarianism is the most durable part of the GOP platform,” he says.

The man who now carries Paul’s torch—his son Rand—agrees that fiscal conservatism is the linchpin of any libertarian movement, but he cautions against dismissing other issues viewed by establishment Republicans as “outside the mainstream.” On topics from data privacy to Internet freedom to marijuana decriminalization, the younger Paul says Republicans can “soften their image” and maximize the party’s appeal to young voters and independents by arguing for personal responsibility over government regulation. Ultimately, Paul says that he’s discovered “the answer” to his party’s recent struggles: “a more libertarian-themed Republican outlook” uniting broad factions with a low-tax, limited-government platform that steers clear of expensive, endless wars and de-emphasizes divisive fights over social issues.

Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker, who managed the elder Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, says the GOP’s recent libertarian streak (several Paulites have won election to Congress since 2008) speaks to a desire among some Republicans for the party to “return to its roots” of limited government that defends the little guy. Whether that means battling big government over monetary policy, big military over bottomless defense budgets or Big Brother over Internet privacy, a partial Republican embrace of libertarian ideology could signal an upheaval of party orthodoxy and a decided turn in the direction of a leaner, laissez-faire populism.

Step 6: Bring Back The Bootstraps

The Republican presidential primary battle lingered so long because of the party’s existential divide between its upscale, managerial wing and its downscale, populist wing, embodied in the durability of Rick Santorum’s candidacy. Nothing new there (see Rockefeller, Nelson). But the urgent threat of schism has Republicans conducting an invigorated examination of how to close the breach.

Many in the party believe that the GOP needs to divorce itself not just from big government but also from big everything: business, oil, military. “They need to move toward simplifying life,” Erickson says. “The tea-party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement share a common strain, and they both think the deck is stacked against the entrepreneur, the average American, the little guy.”

Distancing itself from Wall Street would chill much of the party’s financing mechanism. But Romney was the most successful fundraiser in the party’s history, and he perished in the shadow of his own evident callousness toward the less affluent.

“We should be fighting over the poor,” says Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. “Right now, the Left triangulates the poor and the Right ignores the poor. It’s no good.… We should have a rumble about who’s more pro-poor, because it’s the decent thing to do.”

One place to start would be the big banks. The Wall Street bailout polled poorly across the political spectrum, and some party strategists believe that Romney’s disparagement of the “47 percent” shaped an avenue for the party to break from that perception of snobbery and extend its appeal to the working and middle classes.

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, whose Harley-riding image and wonkish background helped inculcate early hopes that he could bridge the divide, puts it thusly: “We do not believe in ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in this country; it’s ‘haves’ and ‘yet-to-haves.’ ... You don’t have to change one thing; in fact, the superiority of free-market principles and pro-growth policies for people at the bottom should be our central point. And some folks in the Republican Party just aren’t very articulate in saying that.… I believe in agreeing to disagree on the social issues. I believe in looking for ways to be on the front foot about immigration, possibly conservation.... They’re important, yes, but in a way they’re additional indicia of saying that the policies and principles we are advocating are very specifically aimed at the yet-to-haves in America, that they are our first, second, and third concern.”

It would be, at its core, a restoration, a journey back to the party’s aspirational tradition. “We’re the bootstraps guys!” Brooks says.

Step 7: Just Say Yes

Republicans on Capitol Hill have been rebranded since 2008 as the reliable obstructionists, a group known more for its reflexive opposition (bank regulation, climate change, gun control, etc.) than its proactive problem-solving. Yet, ironically, health care, an issue that has largely defined the GOP as the lamentable “Party of No,” offers an opportunity for Republicans to act more affirmatively.

While fewer than 20 states have opted to operate the insurance exchanges prescribed in the Affordable Care Act, the states still have time to decide whether to expand Medicaid. The Health and Human Services Department has showed openness to a fair approximation of what Republican governors say they want: flexibility in using Medicaid funds and a willingness to allow states to attempt to structure their own cost-reduction efforts.

Poetically, in their eagerness to perform end runs around Obama on health care, Republicans have an opportunity to assert their innovation spirit. And the administration is so hopeful for buy-in on the health care law that it’s granting broad leeway to those willing to meet them partway. Earlier this month, Utah’s insurance exchange, dubbed “Avenue H,” won federal approval despite Gov. Gary Herbert’s refusal to provide plans for individuals through the exchange until next year. Herbert told HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that Avenue H was truer to “Utah principles” and that he preferred to stick with its current incarnation. Sebe­-lius complied.

The health care law also gives the GOP a way to reclaim the reformist imprimatur. Republicans, says Davis, the former Democrat, “can’t be afraid of the word ‘reform.’ ” For party leaders, that pertains not just to health care but also to education, ethics, and campaign finance. The GOP philosophy “can’t simply be a negative philosophy that is opposed to particular programs,” he says. “Conservatism has seemed to be, to too many people, a purely oppositional philosophy.”

Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire GOP activist and a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, concludes, “We need to be more proactive; we need to stand for something.”

Step 8: Leave the Labs Alone

The Republican Party’s greatest policy achievements over the past decade can be traced not to the halls of Congress or the Oval Office but to state legislatures and governor’s mansions. While the national GOP was busy blowing a hole in the deficit, expanding entitlements, and further bloating the federal bureaucracy, Republican governors worked with their legislatures to balance budgets, restructure pension programs, and adopt sweeping education reforms.

When it comes to reinventing the Republican brand, then, shouldn’t Washington look to the states for leadership instead of the other way around? Gentry Collins, a former RNC political director and executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, says yes. “Regardless of whether it’s our party or the Democratic Party,” he says, “modern political history is full of examples of the party out of power, with the damaged brand, being led back to national prominence in part by what comes out of the states, particularly by the governors.”

“The rebuilding of the party has to begin out in the states,” agrees the D.C.-based Madden, whose assessment speaks to a certain self-loathing simmering within the GOP establishment after consecutive presidential defeats.

Meanwhile, as Madden faults the “Washington political complex” for dictating to the states, Spiker, the Iowa GOP chairman, blames the Beltway’s “professional political industry” for crowding out citizen activists. These conflicts—national party versus state party, and D.C. establishment versus grassroots—are moving on parallel tracks and are dividing a party in desperate need of restoring its unity. Watts, the former House member who recently contemplated a run for chairman of the Republican National Committee, captures the spirit of both struggles: “People [are] sick and tired of Washington thinking it knows best.”

RNC member Terri Lynn Land of Michigan says the solution is a balanced approach—some call it a “partnership”—in which Washington provides a macro political structure that allows states to manage their own problems with increased autonomy. “Each state is unique, and each candidate is unique,” Land says. “What Washington needs to learn is that one size does not fit all.”

Republicans are fond of highlighting their federalist roots when lauding America’s “50 laboratories of democracy,” and urging Washington to delegate more to, and learn more from, the states. Ironically, the GOP could defuse both of these budding internecine rivalries by heeding its own advice. On the tactical front, the Washington consultant class has much to learn from activists on the ground: how to recruit, organize, and build a hyper-local campaign infrastructure capable of competing with Obama’s Organizing for America machine. On the policy front, states have set examples—cost-cutting privatization efforts in Indiana; school-saving education reforms in Florida; budget-balancing entitlement changes in New Jersey—that national Republicans would be prudent to emulate rather than ignore.

Step 9: Let It Die!

For many Republicans, the nadir of the recent primary season came during a Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Fla., when moderator Wolf Blitzer pressed Ron Paul about whether a 30-year-old male who refused to buy health insurance should receive government assistance if stricken with a fatal illness. “Congressman, are you saying the society should just let him die?” Blitzer demanded. “Yeah!” hollered multiple people in the audience.

The moment exposed more than just the base’s animus toward the Affordable Care Act; it also laid bare perhaps the party’s greatest vulnerability: The perception lurking on the parapets that it is unfeeling and unsympathetic toward anyone “different.” In no sphere did this prove more damaging than the massive losses resulting from the party’s stance on social issues. The implosion went beyond the intemperate comments on rape and abortion from the mouths of Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In multiple policy areas from gay marriage to birth control, Republicans came across as the party attempting to stand athwart history, only to watch it whiz blithely by. The nation, says Malek, the former aide to Richard Nixon and Bush 41, is “irreversibly moving toward an acceptance of gay marriage.”

For Republicans, it is not an irreversible political problem, although the GOP-led House’s willingness to allow the Violence Against Women Act to expire at year’s hints at a too-gradual learning curve. The 11-point gender gap in November’s presidential exit polls (2 percentage points less than 2008’s divide) won’t fix itself.

One answer from forward-looking Republicans on how to resolve tensions over social issues is, unsurprisingly, to get these decisions as far away from Washington as possible. “Evangelical Christians in the South don’t need to give up on their traditional view of family; I don’t think that should happen. But they should be tolerant of people in their party who have a different viewpoint from them,” says Rand Paul. Davis adds, “The party has to be open to the regional realities of politics.”

Another solution, which crops up repeatedly, is to seize back the pro-family mantle, a reshaped one that is not, for instance, ipso facto exclusive of families with two parents of the same gender. “When Republicans say ‘family,’ it’s a code word for anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights,” says former Rep. James Kolbe of Arizona, who went public about his homosexuality in 1996 after voting for the Defense of Marriage Act. “When you talk about families, it’s got to be about kids growing up safe, about kids getting their education, about trying to retire comfortably. I get nervous when I hear Republicans talk about ‘family.’ ”

Not all Republicans will settle for moderation, though, pointing to a dangerous potential departure point for the party, an area where some moderates are willing to deal away the bedrock conservatives. Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa Christian conservative leader, says, “Mitt Romney called a truce on social issues” and points out that the nominee declined to participate in Chick-Fil-A day in support of the company CEO’s statements against gay marriage. “At the same time, you had President Obama embracing social issues. The fact is, if you have one party or one campaign highlighting social issues and you’re not willing to debate them on a difference of viewpoint or worldview, then their worldview is going to win. The other side is not calling a truce; the other side is trying to reshape this culture on secular-progressive terms.” A truce, Vander Plaats says, is “another term for surrender.”

To some extent the truce held; Romney shunned social issues, setting a precedent as the party’s standard-bearer. And, unlike in 2004, the GOP had no institutionalized efforts to leverage state ballot questions into up-ballot victories. That’s a template of intra-party tolerance that would work.

Step 10: Don't Go There

Just as Bill Clinton helped to repair his party’s fiscal-responsibility image with his New Democrat governing approach, Obama, in doggedly pursuing terrorists and in winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has reasserted his party’s ability to call itself aggressive on national security and foreign policy. Republicans have been left flailing, attempting to play gotcha over last year’s fatal attacks in Benghazi, Libya, rather than forming a coherent post-Bush foreign policy.

“Our country has become war-weary,” says Korn, a Bush White House veteran and a military spouse. Republicans “had that issue probably until the last two years of the Bush presidency.”

Again, in the void lies opportunity. The GOP has a palpable isolationist strain, overshadowed by the hawkish wing represented by Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham. Recall the House’s June 2011 rejection, fueled largely by antiwar Republican votes, of a measure to limit funding for the U.S. involvement in NATO’s intervention in Libya’s civil war.

Fortunately for Republicans, the political palatability of embracing its isolationist bloc dovetails with its current stated raison d’être of cutting spending. Romney lost the election by 23 points among 18-to-29-year-old voters, who have watched their friends spend the past decade in war zones. Now the GOP has an opportunity to burnish its brand among these voters, whom Obama has owned. “Traditionally, the peace candidate wins elections,” notes Spiker, who said that college students frequently approach him about bringing the troops home. “We have done well as Republicans when we are the peace party. And I think Americans are ready to see us out of Afghanistan, and I think that’s something that the party, as it’s choosing candidates in the future, needs to look at.”

A changing of the guard on foreign policy won’t happen, however, without an internecine battle of epic proportions, considering the intensity with which neoconservatives loathe the party’s nascent libertarian wing. “I don’t think … the antiwar sentiment is durable. The Republican Party is not going to find itself in five or 10 years committed to neo-isolationsim,” Rove says confidently. “It’s just not likely to happen.”

For now, the GOP’s most visible figures on foreign policy are graybeards McCain and Graham, interventionists both. But their third amigo, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, has been strategically replaced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the Republican from New Hampshire, who has the advantages of being female and young (44). This may signal an acknowledgment within the party that, at the very least, a generational shift on foreign policy might be prudent.

Step 11: Give Power to the People

Republicans are likely to win their first big confrontation with the Obama administration over energy policy, as most handicappers predict the Keystone XL pipeline will receive approval. Their second, much more consequential, battle will ensue over emissions rules on coal-fired power plants.

Republicans, and coal-state Democrats, are likely to treat this as the War on Coal’s Battle of the Bulge.

Obama’s reticence on energy and environmental issues, outrageous to the Left, has served as an impetus to those who see in the nation’s energy-generating potential a winning economic argument. Daniels, the newly installed president of Purdue University, cites energy as “the single biggest break this economy’s gotten in decades” and calls for the “absolute maximization” of energy exploration. Read: Party elders have no intention of backing away from “drill, baby, drill.”

“Among those things that can be the most direct contributors to more opportunity in this country, there’s none bigger than the breakthrough in energy,” Daniels says, adding that anyone who stands in the way of aggressive resource cultivation “will have a lot to explain to a country with enormous unemployment.”

Any explanation, of course, would flow from environmental, climate, and health concerns. But Daniels and others believe that voters, faced with choosing between conservation and spiking energy prices, will decide based on their wallets. “You have to make it relatable to the guy filling up his tank for $80 or $90,” Merrill says.

Steph 12: Build It, and They Will Come

During Romney’s Massachusetts governorship, particularly in the early going before he spent much of his energy laying the groundwork for his 2008 White House bid, a signature initiative was an innovative approach to land-use policies. Marketed as “smart growth,” the anti-sprawl efforts rewarded municipalities that pursued zoning reform to scale back lot-size minimums and to prioritize downtown transportation hubs around which mixed-use buildings could cluster; it was termed “transit-oriented development.”

Its chief advocate, both within Romney’s Cabinet and publicly, was Doug Foy, a longtime environmentalist whose appointment as state development chief was viewed as an early demonstration of the governor’s willingness to cast broadly for a “best and brightest” team. Foy framed smart growth as almost harking back to a more Rockwellian time. Towns prohibiting smaller lots and clustered real-estate development were, Foy says, “literally creating a community where their children or their parents couldn’t live, because they couldn’t afford it.” Using his own daughter as an example, he points out that young people frequently couldn’t afford large suburban homes and thus had to live farther away from their families. “It’s almost un-American to build communities that don’t have places for all the generations in a family,” he says.

Not only that, but providing the infrastructure for widely flung communities is more expensive: longer sewage pipes, electricity lines, routes for snowplows.

Romney shied from promoting his smart-growth past on the presidential campaign trail; if framed poorly, it can sound like the type of government “overreach” not in vogue among the Republican base (“they’re going to tell me where I can and cannot build my house?”). Indeed, Foy was increasingly sidelined as Romney’s gubernatorial term progressed, along with the administration’s pride in its smart-growth strategy. “Early on, the political handlers got uncomfortable with the term ‘smart growth,’ because the talk-show crowd had decided smart growth was a bad idea,” Foy says.

But Republicans can devise a way to pursue and message smart growth—and, more broadly, infrastructure projects—that should appeal to budget hawks and business interests. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder continues to invest considerable political capital in building a second bridge between Detroit and Ontario, Canada, because he’s convinced it will create construction jobs in the short term and promote international commercial cooperation in the long term. The economically moribund Motor City badly needs such jolts, and Snyder stands to benefit politically if his infrastructure project delivers.

During last year’s transportation-bill grappling in Washington, House Republicans succeeded in stripping dedicated funding for mass transit from the final legislation, along with money for biking and pedestrian projects. That’s fine for a party eager to cater to rural voters who rely on highways to get around. But for one hoping to entice urban voters—not to mention voters who could be convinced of the cost-effectiveness of investments in transit—embracing such projects under the guise of thoughtful, long-term budgeting would likely reap dividends.

Under Romney’s long-since-abandoned development policy, smart growth was presented as an orderly strategy to combat sprawl, framed “as an investment rather than spending.” Such a family-friendly approach to reining in local budgets should be recognizable to the GOP as any easy adjustment. And, like health care, it’s an area where states could take the lead role, without a massive federal mandate.


Maybe those are all the steps Republicans need to reposition themselves to regain power. Maybe none of them are. But the party has admitted its problem, and that’s the first and most promising one. Still, the GOP might benefit from a little help from above, perhaps through the intercession of Reagan, say, or Barry Goldwater or Robert Taft or Edmund Burke, as it seeks the serenity to accept the things it cannot change (demographic drift), the courage to change the things it can (voter outreach), and the wisdom to know the difference.

In the interim, expect plenty of meetings.