The GOP is debating whether its problem is the product or the packaging.
As anybody who reads this blog will know, I stand on the "product" side of the debate.
The GOP needs a more a centrist economic message, a more modern cultural message, and a stronger stance in favor environmental responsibility. The GOP didn't lose in 2012 because it failed to "communicate" its policies. The Romney-Ryan ticket lost precisely because it succeeded in communicating its policies. If the ticket had communicated those policies more articulately, it would have lost even bigger.
The GOP won't start winning again until it develops a more attractive policy agenda. The best news about the RNC's Growth & Opportunity Project is its recognition of this truth:
"[O]ur policies and actions must take into account that the middle class has struggled mightily and that far too many of our citizens live in poverty." (p. 5)
The Project accepts a role for government to insure and assist hard-pressed people in difficult times.
"Our job as Republicans is to champion private growth so people will not turn to the government in the first place. But we must make sure that government works for those truly in need, helping so they can quickly get back on their feet." (p. 6)
It expresses firmly the oldest idea in Republicanism, older even than Abraham Lincoln: "The Republican party must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life." (p. 7)
It notes self-critically, "[D]evastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue." (p. 6) It recognizes the epistemic closure that has often blinded the party to uncongenial reality, quoting Joe Scarborough (via Peggy Noonan) as warning against "[R]adio stars, websites, and magazines functioning as unofficial arbiters …." (p. 56)
Now comes the bad news. The Growth and Opportunity Project offers only one policy recommendation, and that one recommendation - comprehensive immigration reform - will actually aggravate the inequality and wage stagnation that have pushed so many middle-class Americans away from the Republican party. On the social issues that have been so off-putting to women and young people, the Project can propose only that Republicans "change our tone." (This is a more diplomatic way of phrasing my first post-election suggestion: "Insult fewer people next time.") It refers very delicately to the "civil rights issues of our time," without going into embarrassing detail about what those might be - until on p. 75 it urges that the Republican party demonstrate to gay Americans that it cares about them too.
But look … as Reihan Salam has aptly said, the job of developing new and more relevant policies belongs to the policy community and to aspiring candidates, not to the central party organization. That central organization is an umbrella group that must represent all party factions.
The RNC's job is to build an effective campaign organization - and to caution the party against doing things that level-headed people of all factions can recognize as stupid, beginning with legitimating rape. And when it comes to improving organization, the Growth and Opportunity project has smart things to say.
Better data collection and analysis? Check. (pp 28-29)
More active efforts to recruit candidates from demographic groups Republicans hope to win? Check. (p. 33)
Rely less on TV advertising and more on voter contact? Check! (pp. 35-36 and p. 45-46)
There are limits of course. The Project tip-toes around the tendency of activist groups to burden the party with candidates who are either unelectable or un-re-electable. (p. 45) But when it comes to the mechanics of politics, the Project has wise words. It urges a more party-centric system of campaign finance (this is one of the things that got Reihan Salam excited, and rightly so) and condemns the 2012 practice of permitting uncountably many presidential debates, often operated by pressure groups intent on foisting their own agenda upon the candidates.
Given that the Project report is so averse to imposing external agenda, why then did it commit the RNC to the immigration issue, of all issues, as the change that will save the party?
If anything, the immigration issue exemplifies the characteristic faults that led the party into so much trouble in 2012, especially the inattention to middle-class economic interests, but also the tendency of the party to coalesce around policy shibboleths it has not thought through. These are the mistakes we need the Growth and Opportunity to rescue the party from, not to encourage the party to repeat.
It would have been more in keeping with the Project's name and mission if it had cautioned the party against overemphasis on fiscal issues at the expense of economic growth, or against favoring the interests of the elderly against those of the young. Those are the policy areas in which to begin the process of policy reform.
To pay the report its due, however, policy reform is not the only reform needed. From contracting practices to technology to communications modernization, RNC chairman Reince Preibus and the Growth and Opportunity Project have forthrightly acknowledged real weaknesses and set the Republican party on the road to repair. It's a fair beginning of renewal. Nice work.