The GOP, Now With Less Crazy

The Republican plan to reform the party is less a program of reform than a rough blueprint about how to marginalize the nutters at the base.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus speaks on CBS's "Face the Nation" in Washington on Sunday, March 17, 2013.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus speaks on Face the Nation on Sunday.

Photo by Chris Usher/CBS News/AP

On the way out of the Metro and into the National Press Club, I glanced at a copy of Politico’s print edition. The top political story was tomorrow’s congressional primary in South Carolina: “[Mark] Sanford Seems Headed for a Runoff.” The main photo, occupying a third of the page, recapped last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference: Sarah Palin, who sort-of governed Alaska for 31 months, sucking soda from a 40-ounce Super Big Gulp.

This was a comprehensive guide to the Republican Party at its lamest, a sum total of all of the things that make its national leaders turn red and curse off-mic. That was what the Growth and Opportunity Project (GOP—see what they did there?) was supposed to fix. The five-member committee, a project of the Republican National Committee, was launched in December—after the Romney debacle but before party chairman Reince Priebus had won a second two-year term. The Republican Party had just won the white vote while losing everybody else. To find out why, the RNC tapped a white woman, a Hispanic woman, a black man, a Jewish guy, and one white male from the South—a veritable Captain Planet cast.

Their 100-page report was an impressive work of hair-shirting. “The Republican party needs to stop talking to itself,” they wrote. “The perception that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party.” They made no mention of abortion and no mention of marriage. “Among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond,” they wrote, “must be to embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” At the press conference where they rolled this out, Puerto Rican team member Zori Fonalledas gave the reform pitch en Espanol before repeating it in English.

We hadn’t actually strayed far from CPAC. Al Cardenas, the bilingual president of the American Conservative Union, had promised to use the conference to “stimulate the conservative electorate to support [the Senate’s bipartisan] immigration measure.” He did so, with CPAC speaker after speaker telling conservatives to suck it up and get behind reform.

Skeptics couldn’t really shout down the speakers at CPAC. Lucky for me, an avatar of the conservative base had found the RNC’s roll-out. I was seated next to Neil Munro, the Irish-born reporter for the Daily Caller who’d interrupted President Obama’s announcement that young illegal immigrants wouldn’t be targeted for deportation. Munro didn’t interrupt anyone today. He waited for report co-author Ari Fleischer to evade two questions on state party politics and debates, then asked whether coming out for “amnesty” would be “posing any damage to your other supporters” for the false hope of winning some Hispanics.

“What’s the evidence it actually works?” asked Munro.

“That’s one of many steps that need to be taken,” said Fleischer.

“Every American knows that we have to find a solution,” said Fonalledas.

“OK, I asked for evidence,” said Munro. “Do you have any polling evidence that your base will support amnesty, guest workers, and future flow?”

“They will support it, I think,” said Fonalledas, “because it’s really an issue we need to resolve if we want to gain Hispanics and minority votes.”

“What’s the evidence?” asked Munro.

Fonalledas mused some more about the need to win Hispanic voters and the conversation moved elsewhere. “Is it rude to ask it a fourth time?” whispered Munro. I told him to try asking in Spanish.

Somebody’s got to ask. As Ramesh Ponnuru points out, the report “ignores all of the political arguments made by critics of comprehensive reform, let alone the policy arguments,” and doesn’t mention “that Hispanics tend to be more supportive of Obamacare than white voters.” The GOP report was committing the party to more technical and strategic reforms, with the implication that it would lay off the social issues that anger—nay, motivate—the base. In his speech to the full Press Club, Priebus pledged to open a hacker-friendly field office in San Francisco. In the report, the RNC promised more “Digital Campaign Colleges” in “Austin, New York, Denver, and so on.”

Alienate gays and nonwhites and you can’t even start to play in those cities. How to get there? Make the national party, and its nominee, less vulnerable to eruptions from the base. The report calls for the primary debate schedule to be cut back to pre-2008 levels, with maybe a dozen televised forums, and more control over who moderates them. Subtly, it mentions that “self-deportation” hurt Republicans in 2012. It doesn’t mention that the term originated with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped Alabama and Arizona write immigration laws that made it prohibitively hard to live as “an illegal.” It doesn’t mention that Rick Perry’s meltdown began when he suggested, in a debate, that immigration hard-liners didn’t “have a heart.”

The states were always going to produce tricky, hard-right issues. That couldn’t be helped. But the party could control how often its candidates were forced to respond, and it could build more credibility—as Texas Republicans have—with nonwhites. “Obama called his mother a typical white person and there was no outcry from the equality community,” said Fleischer after Priebus’ speech. “If people believe in us, the gaffes get diminished. If people don’t know us, the gaffes gain resonance.”

Those gaffes usually come from pretty sincere places. Missouri’s failed Senate candidate Todd Akin, patron saint of gaffes, mused about the female body’s power to nullify rape because he came out of hard-right religious politics and really believed that stuff. The RNC debuted a way to shut that whole thing down. In the report, they call for “inviting as many voters as possible into the Republican Party by discouraging conventions and caucuses for the purpose of allocating delegates to the national convention.” Take away the caucus system and there’s no Ron Paul movement; there’s no stubborn Rick Santorum candidacy for social conservatives to rally behind.

Do that, and maybe the party can be as conservative as it likes in the states without the national candidate having to sweat it. In the Q&A after his speech, Priebus got a question about the party’s outreach to gays. He cited Sen. Rob Portman’s recent announcement that he supported gay marriage—that was good for “outreach.” I noticed that Rep. Bill Johnson, who represents southeastern Ohio, was in the room to hear Priebus, and I asked him about Portman’s catharsis.

“I personally believe that we create many of the problems that we have because the federal government inserts itself into social issues that probably should be resolved by the states,” he said. “I think our Founding Fathers were pretty smart in not addressing those things.”

It was a dodge, but not so long ago, it would have been an answer about the primacy of marriage. Johnson and Portman were thinking harder about swing voters than about their party’s base. Priebus wants as many Republicans as possible to make that same lifestyle choice.