Clarence Page: GOP reboot: A ‘Grand Open Party?’

Mar. 24, 2013 @ 06:26 PM

Will Republican leaders listen to a bruising new internal report that calls for more minority outreach? First, they have to convince their party’s right-wingers to avoid making younger and nonwhite voters feel about as welcome as a cheeseburger at a vegan buffet.
That’s a very short summation of the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report (“GOP,” get it?) commissioned by the Republican National Committee after its chairman, Reince Priebus, said they needed an “autopsy” of nominee Mitt Romney’s Election Day loss.
The 100-page study concludes that the GOP has an empathy gap and perception problem. Many voters — particularly minorities, single women and the young — view the party as a bunch of out-of-touch “stuffy old men” and “wrongly think Republicans do not like them.”
“Our message was weak,” said Priebus. “Our ground game was insufficient; we weren’t inclusive. ... So there’s not one solution. There’s a long list of them.”
But none more urgent, he said, than the need to reach out to women and minorities. Obama won more than 80 percent of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others in the last election. By 2050, the non-Hispanic whites on whom Republican victories tend to rely are expected to be a minority. The report calls for a massive outreach to women, African-American, Asian, Hispanic and gay voters that mimics in many ways President Barack Obama’s successful ground game.
The reboot would include hiring paid outreach staffers across the country in a $10 million push and support for “comprehensive immigration reform,” among other moves.
Sound familiar? You may recall how Michael Steele, the RNC’s first and now-former black chairman, was rebuffed, ridiculed as “gaffe-prone” (Washington’s way of saying you’re being too truthful, too often,) and ultimately defeated in his 2011 re-election bid — after calling for a outreach to diversity quite similar to what Priebus wants now.
“I talked about the need to expand the party, get out of our comfort zones and get acquainted with grass-roots people,” Steele told me in a telephone interview. “It’s nice to hear Reince parrot me now.”
Steele spent about $900,000 on a coalition-building office and network that helped the GOP score major victories in 2009 and 2010, he said. But now that RNC leaders want to spend a dozen times that much, Steele said, “What I want to know is, if this (outreach and expansion) is so important now, why wasn’t it important in 2009 and 2010 when you said you didn’t need to do it?”
Steele is hardly the first RNC chairman to call for minority outreach. In 2005, Ken Mehlman stirred controversy by apologizing to the NAACP for the “Southern strategy” that sacrificed black support to win white votes in the 1960s backlash against the civil rights revolution.
But most efforts to turn the outreach talk into action have been rebuffed by skeptics who see such appeals as a waste of time and money. That changed after nominee Mitt Romney’s defeat became the Republicans’ fifth failure to win the popular vote in the last six presidential elections.
Is the “Southern strategy” dead, as Steele announced when he began his chairmanship? “If it wasn’t,” he told me, “after this election, I hope everybody realizes that it is now or we really are the stupid party, as Gov. Bobby Jindal (a Louisiana Republican) recently said.”
Yet at the previous week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which I attended in suburban Washington, the right wing’s heavyweights sounded less interested in outreach than in finding more votes to squeeze out of their conservative base.
“We’re not here to rebrand a party,” failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin declared. “We’re here to rebuild a country.”
“We don’t need a new idea,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio assured the crowd. “There is an idea. The idea’s called America and it still works!”
How can the GOP hold onto their base, which dominates the primaries and recent off-year congressional race elections, without turning off the moderates and swing voters it needs to win general elections? That’s an old dilemma that both parties face. But for now, Republicans don’t have demographics on their side.
Now it’s time for the Grand Old Party to become a more open party.

Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as cpage@tribune.com. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.