Spin Cycle

02.08.13

GOP Swears It’s Not Stupid

Republicans are on a PR campaign to repair their image and convince voters they love women, immigrants, and the poor. But can they walk the walk? Howard Kurtz doubts it.

Consider: Sarah Palin and Dick Morris are out at Fox News, and Scott Brown, the Massachusetts moderate, may be in.

Eric Cantor is talking about the problems of working mothers.

Marco Rubio is on the cover of Time as “the New Voice of the GOP” and will respond next week to the president’s State of the Union.

And Karl Rove has launched a group to push mainstream conservatives in Senate primaries against the Tea Party types who have been going down in flames.

You might describe all this as a rebranding, rejiggering, or recasting. It could be written off as largely cosmetic, but increasingly appears more than skin-deep. What’s beyond dispute is that Republicans are trying to shed their image as what Bobby Jindal calls the “stupid party”—at least when it comes to the stupidity of losing elections.

What’s missing from this equation is hard evidence that the GOP, having lost twice to Barack Obama, is changing its policies. Not a single legislative compromise has taken shape, especially on the big-ticket issues like the budget and taxes.

But perception matters in politics.

Fox is an interesting bellwether. It rode the Tea Party wave in 2009 with such prominent voices as Palin and Glenn Beck, along with such candidates-in-waiting as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. But the cheerleading from folks like Morris, who predicted Mitt Romney would win in an electoral landslide, left many Fox viewers unprepared for Obama’s big win.

If Fox hires Brown, the former senator who often worked with Democrats, Roger Ailes will be signaling more of a big-tent approach to Republican politics. And Fox, needless to say, is highly influential with the GOP base.

The party’s more family-friendly tone, as epitomized by Cantor’s we-really-care speech at the American Enterprise Institute, is a clear recognition that the Republican image has become one of harshness and negativity. By punting on its earlier debt-ceiling threats, the leadership is folding a losing hand that constantly made it appear that the party was holding the economy hostage to protect tax breaks for the rich.

On two of the most divisive social issues, most Republicans seem to want to concede a quarter loaf and move on. The party is still opposed to most forms of gun control, but could compromise on stricter background checks as a way of appearing sensitive to the echoes of Newtown.

And on immigration, Rubio is providing political cover for a party that has sent Hispanic voters into the arms of Democrats with its harsh rhetoric. By joining a bipartisan compromise that aims to trade border security for a path to citizenship for those here illegally, the son of Cuban immigrants could help neutralize the issue for his party.

The party’s more family-friendly tone, as epitomized by Cantor’s we-really-care speech, is a clear recognition that the Republican image has become one of harshness and negativity.

Perhaps the most important development is Rove’s Conservative Victory Project, an effort to shore up establishment candidates in GOP primaries. The party has blown several winnable Senate races by nominating such ultraconservatives as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, both of whom sunk their candidacies with outlandish comments about whether rape is “legitimate” or “God’s will.”

The former George W. Bush lieutenant is getting serious blowback from the hard-edged right. “This is not Tea Party versus the establishment,” Rove said on Fox, where he retains his pundit’s perch despite becoming one of the right’s most prolific fundraisers. “I don’t want a fight.”

But he is getting one, and it’s a fight the party should have. Outside super PACs like Rove’s have outsize influence these days because the Republican Party has become a paper tiger, especially when it comes to clearing the field in congressional elections. And, of course, primary voters, who tend to be the furthest right, get the final say.

That’s why the rebranding is above all a media war, not a battle in the trenches, although that will come when we get to 2014. It matters if Marco Rubio is on magazine covers, if Fox viewers are hearing from Scott Brown instead of Sarah Palin. But ultimately, the GOP will have to show that its new approach is more than just talk.