Opinion: Here’s Why Republicans Need a New Leader

Republican

There is little argument that the Republican party is in great need of rebranding; 2013 was not an easy year for them. One could argue that it was not a particularly easy year regarding public image for the federal government as whole. America’s problems are multifaceted and complex. But from the results of polls and anecdotal evidence, it is clear the nation is in crisis and the federal government is most often cited as the problem. Gallup’s annual Mood of the Nation poll, conducted in the first week of the new year, gave a snapshot of how American citizens view the government, its efficiency, and its leadership. Nearly 65 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with how the American governmental system works, and that dissatisfaction has arisen from the fact that Congress and the president appear to have become sidetracked by partisan battles that have taken on more importance than the myriad of issues at hand.

The 113th Congress earned the reputation of the least productive in history, sending fewer than 70 bills to President Barack Obama for his signature and making the infamous “do-nothing Congress” of the late 1940s appear active. “Any way you measure it, quantitatively it stands out as an unusually unproductive session of Congress,” Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar, told The Los Angeles Times. Mann is the coauthor of a book on legislative dysfunction titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. “The problem is not the number of bills,” he said, “but what Congress specifically did that ended up inflicting harm rather than creating conditions for improved performance.”

For the Republican party, the problem is the accusations of practicing partisan politics to the extreme has backfired, ringing much louder than they have for the Democrats. Indeed, in many ways the GOP became the party of “no,” the party of taking stands. “The Republicans have, since taking the majority in the 2010 elections, operated like a parliamentary opposition party,” Mann explained. “The problem is we don’t have a parliamentary system of government. Simply doing what you want to do and can do with your own party is meaningless.” Republican leaders have insisted they are not responsible for the dearth of new laws, but the fact that they have had to defend the party’s legislative record so strongly suggests that the party needs a rebranding.

Republicans said no to the healthcare reform; not a single GOP lawmaker in the House voted for the Affordable Care Act during its passage in 2010, and House Republicans voted dozens of times in the following years to refund or repeal all or parts of Obamacare. After expressing desire to tackle the issue of illegal immigration this year, Republican party leadership said no to immigration reform. Further, with growing concerns for reelection in heavily conservative, gun-friendly states, a majority of lawmakers in the Democrat-led Senate said no to legislation banning assault-style weapons requiring expanded background checks for gun purchasers, even though polls showed a strong majority of Americans supported such measures.

Of course, House Republicans — many of whom swept in with the Tea Party wave of 2010 — feel the need to address issues in accordance with the wishes of their voter base, as they should. But the fallacy with the logic of taking unwavering stands is that the proper functioning of the American system of government is dependent on compromise and negotiation, meaning political rhetoric has its place, but practical political policy is needed as well. In taking one principled stand after another, the Republican party has left the American people clear on what the party believes — curtailing government spending, reducing the deficit, keeping the government from further expanding entitlement programs, and not granting amnesty to the millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States.

What is less clear is how the GOP plans to go about creating a much-needed reform for the immigration system, saving the middle class from dying out, and keeping economic growth accelerating. There are also numerous civil rights issues to consider, ranging from abortion to gay marriage. While it is true party leaders have offered an alternative to the Affordable Care Act — one that is a fairly similar, yet less fiscally and logistically an onerous, three-legged approach — their hand was forced by the implementation of the healthcare reform championed by Obama. The party’s legislative agenda compares poorly to the mission set out by the president; his domestic goals, as well as his methods, may not appeal to all Americans, but at least it hints at action rather than gridlock.

Overall, it seems that the Republican party paradigm is not working; the GOP has lost the White House in two consecutive elections. In 2008, with his campaign stressing hope and change, Barack Obama was swept into the White House on a wave of support from young adults, African-Americans, and Hispanics — demographic groups that voted heavily for Obama in 2012 as well.

While a wave of Tea Party candidates gave the Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, both presidential elections served as sign that the GOP was ideologically out of tune with important and fast-growing segments of the American population. A February 2013 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press made a similar suggestion; sixty-two percent of respondents said the GOP was out of touch with the American people, while 56 percent thought it was not open to change, and 52 percent said the party was too extreme. From those numbers, it seems change was an order.

But in 2012, as now, Republicans could not come to an agreement on the terms of the rebranding; the GOP was divided between recasting itself as a party of balance and pursuing ideological purity. Furthermore, Republican leaders could not agree on how to diagnose their public image problem. Some argued the election results showed that the party should find a new way to talk about important issues like immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage, while other attributed Republican losses to the party’s poor candidate choices.

“We continually crank out moderate loser after moderate loser,” Joshua S. Treviño, a speechwriter in George W. Bush’s administration, told the New York Times after the last presidential election. He believes those moderate candidates were rejected by voters because of their “perceived inauthenticity.” But Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist, believed the problem was one of appeal. “I certainly get the fact that your daddy’s Republican Party cannot win relying singularly on white voters and evangelicals alone — as critical as I believe those voters are to a majority coalition,” he told the publication. “The good news for conservatives is there are many of those who have not always felt welcome in our ranks who share our values.”

The Republican party has not only not overcome its ideological divides, nor found a leader to give the party a unifying direction. The push for ideological purity, led by the Tea Party candidates who entered Congress in 2010, has also made the party much more radical; as evidence, one must only look to the October partial shutdown of the federal government. House Republicans fell in line with the Tea Party faction, voting by a margin of 228 to 1 to make continued financing of the federal government contingent on defunding the Affordable Care Act. But the push for ideological purity has also made the party unable to find common ground within itself, unable to promote legislation that will pass both houses of Congress, and so opposed to negotiations with Democrats that they risked a federal default in order prove their commitment to fiscal responsibility.

Tea Party lawmakers — while a small subset of the larger conservative movement — were elected on the idea that they would be more responsive to their constituents’ political needs, but what they created was further polarization and gridlock. With the congressional midterm elections little more than six months away and the 2016 election slowly approaching, the Republicans need a new leader — one that can overcome the fractured party, negotiate with Democrats, and be far more inclusive than the current Republican party. Negotiation is absolutely essential for the proper function of the U.S. government.

As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer told Fox News in December, a president must work with both parties — regardless of majorities or supermajorities — because legislating is not about pushing ideas down the throat of the nation but about compromising so that the legislation can be successful. Just because one party rules the House, the Senate, and holds the presidency — as the Democrats did in 2010 when Obamacare was passed — does not mean compromise and negotiation is not needed. The problem is polls show that Republican voters would much rather their leaders stand on principle rather than compromise “to get things done,” and the action of party leaders reflect that preference. Both parties need to realize that American system of government was not designed to be controlled by a single party.

Artwork: Anthea Mitchell

But Tea Party members have complicated the challenge of bipartisanship. One could argue they are more like a third party than part of the Republican party. As Peter Wehner, who held key posts in the last three Republican presidential administrations, wrote of Tea Party philosophy in a September opinion piece, “This is not conservatism either in terms of disposition or governing philosophy. It is, rather, the product of intemperate minds and fairly radical (and thoroughly unconservative) tendencies.” The question is who can pull the party together.

From October’s shutdown of the federal government, it is clear that Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the current Speaker of the House, is finding the splintered party difficult to lead. His actions in the House of Representatives have shown the speaker to be willing to cave under the pressure of the minority — the Tea Party representatives. For voters looking for an effective leader, that decision looked poor. Typically, party leaders protect the mainstream members from the demands of the fringe. After all, the speaker controls committee assignments and the floor schedule, which means Boehner has power over individual GOP lawmakers. If fringe members want to be part of the lawmaking process, they usually need to fall in line with leadership, and that reality keeps those members from pushing extreme positions.

But Republican leadership — including Boehner — does not have strength to forge unity. “What we’re seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power,” Robert Costa, Washington bureau chief for the National Review, told Bloomberg. Now, a Tea Party lobby group is looking to oust the speaker from his Ohio congressional district. With midterms approaching, the Republicans appear set for an upheaval.

Artwork: Anthea Mitchell

Given the Republicans have little leverage in the Senate, Boehner is left as the most powerful Republican lawmaker. But because of his weakened position, whoever earns the party nomination could have the opportunity to revitalize the GOP unlike the speaker. After all, he or she will be in the public eye for months campaigning for the presidency, and if anything, a candidate needs to be able to present a vision of what the party wants to accomplish. For now, the field is wide open, but none of top billed Republicans are likely to broaden the party’s appeal to a greater number of Americans, mend the party’s own internal divide, and convince voters the next administration will take a bipartisan approach to leadership. Before the BridgeGate scandal hit, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was a strong candidate in that he realized the importance of bipartisanship.

Christie’s November reelection was seemingly a triumph for bipartisanship. Political commentators had described Christie as a proponent of pragmatism over ideology, and the governor himself said that his electoral victory should be a lesson for the country’s broken political system. Despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans by over 700,000 in the state of New Jersey, Christie prevailed by winning the majority of the votes of women and Hispanics as well as attracting a number of younger voters and African Americans — key demographic groups the GOP has had trouble attracting. Now, if he were to run, the governor would have to convince voters he had no role in the vindictive road closures and shake off any lingering remnants of political corruption from his public image.

Other candidates have their strengths and weaknesses as well. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul — who joined the Senate on the wave of Tea Party conservatism — would have trouble attracting moderate voters, yet his libertarian stance on federal drug policy and foreign relations would likely appeal to many. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was described by Time Magazine as the savior of the Republican party; a charismatic conservative who is both able speak authoritatively on the issue of immigration and play a key part of the party’s effort to appeal to Hispanic voters after candidates in 2012 made such reform suggestions as “self-deportation” and alligators for border protection.

But Rubio has frustrated almost every faction of the party. Rubio, like Paul, is a freshman senator and both would benefit from a few years of maturation before running for president. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Representative and 2012 Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, as well as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have all espoused a clear and direct conservative approach to fiscal and governance issues. Ryan, who opposed the shutdown, is popular with the conservative base; together with Walker, he may be the only possible contender not disliked by one faction of the Republican party.

The problem is none of these candidates are transformative. Still, Paul realizes this fact. “I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party,” Paul said during an interview with conservative radio host Glenn Beck that aired Thursday. “And it has to be a transformation. Not a little tweaking at the edges.” Most importantly, the GOP needs to be inclusive. “There are many people who are open among all these disaffected groups, who really aren’t steadfast supporters of Obama or an ideology,” he explained. “I think they’re open to listening, but we have to have a better message and a better presentation of it.”

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS