Hate to Break It to Ya

Memo to GOP: You Can’t Put Lipstick on an Elephant

Republicans’ trumpeted makeover plan has been out only a few days, but it’s already crumbling. Bob Shrum on how Paul Ryan and anti-gay zealots are shooting their party in the foot.

03.22.13 8:45 AM ET

The Republican Nation Committee’s postmortem on 2012 is hardly a guarantee that the party will come back to electoral life in 2014, or even 2016.

And to find out why, look no further than Paul Ryan.

First, though, the report itself, grandly titled “The Growth and Opportunity Project.”

In some ways, it is an unsparing document, arraigning a party out of touch with Americans, especially the new America of younger and more diverse voters; slamming last year’s presidential nominee in all but name; and, in effect, calling for a sweeping de-Romneyization. In other ways, it’s as obvious as it is correct, calling for a state-of-the-art social-media and turnout operation to replace the Mitt model nicknamed Orca, which on Election Day beached itself on the shores of untested and outdated technology.

The report did call for several shifts on policy, outraging conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, the GOP’s waning pooh-bah, who bloviated: “The Republican Party lost because it’s not conservative.” How I wish that advice would be taken to heart—and into electoral oblivion. Instead, saner, more establishment heads have concluded that the party has to moderate, a word they dare not use on issues like gay rights and immigration reform. Easier recommended than realized—and once done, almost certainly not enough.

Gay rights, the report argued, are a “gateway” for “many younger voters”: they just won’t come to the GOP if the GOP doesn’t bend here. Don’t bet on that move. The religious right, with its potentially decisive power in midterm and presidential primaries, will resist any candidate who follows such thoroughly sensible advice. In any event, the advice is queasy and muddy: what exactly are reformed Republicans supposed to say about marriage equality? How about North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr’s dodge? “It’s a states’-rights issue,” he pleads, invoking the age-old rationalization for discrimination and repression. But even this modified, limited hang-out won’t redeem Republicans when their House members are swinging the opposite way in the Supreme Court, spending millions of dollars to defend the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, asked if his views on same-sex marriage were changing, offered an ugly reply: “I’m not gay. So I’m not going to marry one.” What if he had been questioned in 1967 about the state laws prohibiting interracial marriage about to be struck down by the Supreme Court? I suppose the Chambliss of that year, channeling Georgia’s arch-segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox, would have replied: “I’m not black. So I’m not marrying one.” There is something indivisible about bigotry—and something profoundly revealing in a comment like this. The GOP may want a cosmetic gloss on its hostility toward gays, but it’s more of a gossamer fig leaf over a reflex instinct for inequality and a resolve to hold on to the religious right at all costs. And that kind of masquerade won’t convince the 70 percent of millennials born since 1980 who favor marriage equality. All the social media in the world, no matter how sophisticated, won’t matter if the message is a token and transparently inauthentic tolerance. 
Or take immigration reform, where Republicans are hinting that they might actually take their medicine and swallow a path to citizenship as part of a comprehensive bill. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who seems—and I mean seems—to favor this, has been busy safeguarding his presidential ambitions by qualifying his support for reform: there can’t be a “special” route to citizenship; it has to “happen at some time in the future, when some time has elapsed.” Politico cites a Rubio adviser confiding that a conservative backlash could lead Rubio to “back off his support” for even a crabbed and grudging measure—and that his fellow White House aspirant in the Senate, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, has “danced around his specific position.”

The backlash is fierce—from the Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint to Texas’s McCarthyite Sen. Ted Cruz. Right-wing screedmeister Ann Coulter told the Conservative Political Action Conference: “I am now a single-issue voter against amnesty.” The conference chair. And the problem here goes beyond the tricky navigation of nativist-dominated presidential primaries. The internal GOP debate, the hesitations, and the anti-Hispanic rhetoric will alienate Hispanics even if a reasonable bill passes—and they will blame Republicans if it doesn’t.

But the problem goes even deeper. Not only is the stereotype of Hispanics as socially conservative wrong—the polls show that they are more in favor of abortion rights (74 percent) and same-sex marriage (66 percent) than the population at large. They also aren’t a GOP fit on the economy and the role of government. In a 2012 exit survey, they overwhelmingly favored Obamacare and raising taxes on the wealthy. So Ann Coulter is right about one thing: the more Hispanic immigrants who become citizens, the more votes Democrats will gain. Immigration reform is right on the merits, but a path to citizenship is anything but a path to a Republican comeback. 
This is where Paul Ryan comes in. And the toxicity of his presence and his positions isn’t confined to Hispanics. The party’s disappointing 2012 vice-presidential nominee, squashed by Joe Biden in their debate, has just forced Republicans in the House to vote for the budget plan Americans repudiated last November. It would voucherize Medicare, repeal Obamacare, shred Medicaid, starve education and medical research, the list goes on, to give, you guessed it, tax breaks to the wealthy. It would smash federal spending—outside of Social Security and interest on the national debt—down to the lowest level since 1948.

House Republican Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers, who feels he has to drink the tea of the Ryan budget, nonetheless complains, “There are a lot of things I’m not happy with ... It cuts too much spending.”

And Rogers is not alone. There are a lot of things voters will be happy with in the Ryan budget—and a GOP that’s in a hole but can’t stop digging. The country has already caught on to the party’s calculation that it can trick people by renovating its style while recycling the same old ideas. Ryan himself, according to the latest Rasmussen poll—hardly a poll skewed against Republicans—has seen his approval rating plummet to 35 percent, down from 50 percent last August. And a new CNN survey reports that two thirds of Americans believe the GOP “favors the rich,” and nearly half think it’s “too extreme.” The survey’s director says, “Unfavorable views [of the party] extend into nearly ... every major demographic.”

Not long before the Ryan budget sailed through the House on a nearly lockstep Republican vote—only 10 Republicans stepped back from the political abyss—one freshman member comforted himself with the notion that “it’s pretend ... We know it’s dead on arrival in the Senate.” But it will be very much alive as a defining campaign issue in 2014, and unless the GOP turns from its rigid ideology, in 2016, too. And so far, what’s plainly and decidedly dead, for all the Beltway blather about it, is the Republican makeover.

So beyond the mechanics, the outreach, the shorter presidential-primary season—all the recommendations of the RNC report—here is what the party has on offer. 

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A “gentler” tone on gay rights accompanied by a hard line in the Supreme Court—and almost certainly in the next rounds of primaries for the Senate and for president.

A confused, shilly-shallying, often slur-riven approach on immigration reform that surely won’t convert Hispanics and other ethnic minorities.

And one place where the RNC report is truly shy: an enmity toward a woman’s right to choose and women’s health services that will perpetuate and widen  the gender gap.

The coup de grâce comes with the Ryan budget’s rank economic injustice and massive cuts for the middle class, seniors, and the poor. The RNC may be trying hard, but Paul Ryan has starkly shown that you can’t put lipstick on an elephant.