Requiem for a Republican Autopsy
It’s time for the autopsy of an autopsy.
In early 2013—which now seems about as long ago as 1913—the Republican National Committee brought together a brain trust of party elders to figure out what had gone wrong.
Barack Obama had just throttled Mitt Romney, the party lost ground in the Senate, and voters who weren’t in the Old Christian White Man demographic seemed increasingly uninterested in buying what the GOP was selling.
So Reince Priebus and the others at the RNC commissioned a report explaining what mistakes they had made and how they could keep from making them again. Priebus and the report’s authors invited a cadre of reporters to a press conference at the National Press Club to roll out their findings, which they sunnily dubbed the Growth and Opportunity Project. Everyone else called it the GOP autopsy. It was March 18, 2013.
It was a different time.
Fast-forward three years, and the report has become a fascinating historical document—a failed prophecy of what could have been, a window into an alternate universe that never came to be, and a testament to just how totally clueless Republican Party leaders were at the time about the political dynamics that would shape 2016. Donald Trump might as well have read this document and done the exact opposite of what it said.
And we all know how that’s working out for him: terrific.
It might have something to do with the authors of the report:
Henry Barbour, Sally Bradshaw, Ari Fleischer, Zori Fonalledas, and Glenn McCall.
Bradshaw was a senior adviser for Jeb Bush’s now-defunct campaign. Henry Barbour, nephew of longtime Mississippi power broker Haley Barbour, had a family tie to Bush’s campaign: His brother Austin was also a senior advisor to the campaign. Ari Fleischer, of course, was George W. Bush’s first White House press secretary. And Fonalledas was on Jeb Bush’s Hispanic Leadership Committee.
In other words, Jeb’s was the only campaign with which any of the autopsy’s authors were formally affiliated—that is, until Bush dropped out of the race and Barbour went on CNN to endorse Rubio.
In that interview, he defended the results of the report (and chided the host for referring to it as an autopsy).
“Well, clearly, Marco Rubio does fulfill that,” he said of the autopsy’s prescriptions. “He’s a conservative candidate. He stands by his principles and he does a great job of reaching out and inspiring all Americans. And I think that’s what we’re looking for.”
Others don’t take such a sunny view of the report’s success—Rubio, after all, has yet to win a primary state and isn’t even polling in first place in his home state of Florida. So while Barbour argues the report is a blueprint for big wins, some say it’s just the product of woefully-out-of-touch party leaders.
“The people that did the report were very much inside the establishment and part of the problem,” said Crystal Wright, who writes the blog Conservative Black Chick and contracted with the RNC to build a website reaching out to black voters—a project that the RNC canned at the last minute.
“People are sick and tired of the establishment and being shut out of the club,” she added. “They think they own the keys to the club, but they don’t. That’s what Donald Trump is telling them, that’s what voters are telling them.”
That said, the mechanical aspects of the report hold up pretty well. A significant chunk of it was dedicated to questions regarding campaign mechanics, data collection, debate-scheduling, fundraising, and other logistical, nuts-and-bolts questions.
But sections on messaging, minority outreach, and policy seem woefully ill-informed—not because the advice was bad, per se, but because the candidate that tossed it all out the window has had, by far, the most success this cycle.
A quick perusal of the autopsy shows just how much things have changed.
The document started out by praising Republican governors.
“The GOP today is a tale of two parties,” it read. “One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”
Republican primary voters do not seem to share their elders’ high esteem for governors. At press time, only one Republican governor—Ohio’s John Kasich—is still in the running for the nomination after a half or dozen or so of his contemporaries dropped out. Nationally, he polls at 8.6 percent.
And despite the best nice-guy spin, he doesn’t look like he’ll be standing for too much longer. Republican governors, collectively, have been entirely uncompetitive in this cycle. Banking on the existence of some secret gnostic wisdom that they collectively hold—well, it wasn’t very smart.
The report also tsk-tsk’d over the perception that some Republican voters have issues with people of color.
“[M]any minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” it read.
Spend 10 minutes at a Trump rally—where the mogul openly fantasizes about punching protesters—and tell me there’s no basis for that perception.
“We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too,” the report continued. “We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities.”
The report had particularly choice words on Republicans’ need to change their messaging on immigration.
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” it said. “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
Romney’s much-maligned call for “self-deportation” now sounds like a Valentine to Hispanics compared to Trump and Cruz’s calls for a deportation force and a big, beautiful wall.
The report also called for the party to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” Trump has literally done the exact opposite of that, embracing and championing mass deportation, maximally militarized border security, and less legal immigration overall.
A year after its release, the authors boasted about its success in a column at RealClearPolitics.
“[O]ne year after the release of the Growth and Opportunity Project report, we’re glad to see Republicans are doing things differently,” they wrote.
And they touted the party’s improved outreach to communities of color—which, well, good try, good effort.
Besides that, the autopsy also encouraged candidates to change their messaging on so-called social issues—meaning same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
“When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming,” the report said. “If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
Penny Nance, who heads the socially conservative group Concerned Women for America, said this was an error, noting that most of the Republican candidates—particularly Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—have doubled-down on their opposition to same-sex marriage.
“The autopsy was probably more wrong than it was right,” she said.
Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and former House leadership aide, said the jury’s still out on whether the autopsy’s push for inclusiveness will work.
“There remains a conflict within the Republican Party around whether or not we are going to be an inclusive party of conservatism—as demonstrated by many fo the candidates running for national office and for state office—or whether we are going to be a divisive force, as demonstrated by Donald Trump,” he said. “And I think the outcome of that still remains uncertain.”
Of all the presidential contenders, Jeb Bush best embodied the report’s recommendations. From the outset of his campaign, he touted his consistent support for comprehensive immigration reform. His campaign rollout was probably the most diverse of any presidential contenders, prominently featuring a number of Hispanic supporters, and he focused on reaching out to that demographic over the course of his campaign. He hired a diverse staff, and gave women prominent and visible roles on his team. That and $150 million didn’t do him a lick of good.
Trump, meanwhile, centered his entire campaign on stoking fear of immigrants, suspicion of any candidate with foreign relatives, and unvarnished contempt for female competitors and journalists. His outreach to Hispanics has consisted of asserting that Hispanics love him. And it’s all working.
It’s working because 2012 wasn’t a messaging problem; it was a voter problem.
Republican voters—at least, upwards of 40 percent of it—don’t want inclusivity and sensitivity and an increase in legal immigration. If they did, then Jeb Bush would have won South Carolina and Donald Trump would have gone the way of Alan Keyes.
But here we are.