For GOP, There’s Plenty of Learning to Go Around

There’s still a lot of confusion in the Republican Party in the aftermath of the 2012 election. Part of the confusion stems from the struggle between the party establishment based in Washington and the party’s base of voters all over the country. Sixty-three percent of Republican voters nationwide recognize that their leaders in Washington have lost touch with the base.

Added to that challenge is the debate over what type of change is needed. Some argue that the party needs to simply change the message and find a better way to sell its product. Others argue that more substantive policy changes are needed.

To end the party’s civil war, both sides need to change. The Republican base needs to make its message of limited government more palatable to more Americans. Bigger fixes are necessary for the party establishment. Right now, it acts as if only cosmetic changes are needed. For example, since the party had trouble with Hispanic voters, let rising star Marco Rubio deliver the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. From the view of Washington Republicans, the only other thing that’s needed is for the base to become more “pragmatic.”

However, if the Republican base had listened to the establishment a few years back, Rubio would still be unknown. The establishment’s definition of pragmatism at that time was to oppose Rubio and back former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is now a Democrat. Yes, it’s important for Republicans to make more of an effort to reach out to the Hispanic community, but it needs to be substantive outreach based on common ground and values. Rubio may be able to help, but it will be because of his message, not his heritage.

Today, the Republican establishment would rather keep wrangling with the Democratic establishment, risking irrelevance because it has neither power nor a large group of supporters.

As for the GOP base, sincere talk about limited government clearly doesn’t work. Not enough voters care about limited government as a goal unto itself. People care about the kind of society a limited government can create. Too often when Democrats propose an idea that sounds good and addresses a perceived need, Republicans say it’s not what the Founders would have wanted. From a messaging perspective, voters want to hear positive solutions rather than theoretical objections.

Case in point: The president just called for more spending on infrastructure, clean energy and education projects. In each case, he claimed they would help the economy. A solid plurality of voters agrees with him on the first two items. And when it comes to spending more on education, 56 percent believe it would help the economy, while just 23 percent believe it would hurt.

A political party that simply says “no” can only count on that 23 percent of the vote.

If voters are given a choice, however, the numbers shift. What would do more to help the economy, cutting government spending or spending more on the president’s initiatives? Fifty-five percent say cutting spending, while just 36 percent favor the new initiatives. Support is even higher when the choice is between cutting the deficit and the new spending plans.

For Republicans to succeed, they need to do a much better job of spelling out choices to the voters. Instead of couching things in black-and-white terms, they need to make clear the real-life implications of their policies. The party establishment needs to listen to GOP voters and find more effective ways of turning their ideas into an uplifting vision for the 21st century.

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