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Timothy Burroughs: A Republican critique

By Timothy Burroughs, Columnist
Published March 21, 2013

On Monday, a breath of fresh air was blown into the Republican Party with the release of a new mandate calling for dramatic reforms. The Growth and Opportunity Project provided a harsh, but realistic, critique of many issues that led to Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign. It focused on effective communication of the party’s platform while avoiding any serious discussion of changes in policy. When I spoke with Ari Fleischer, co-author of the report and press secretary under former President George W. Bush, said, “If you are going to be a growing, vibrant party, you need to be able to learn from your mistakes.”

The Democrats met the 2008 election with an open mind and pioneered social media campaigning. In contrast, Republicans have consistently been playing catch-up — using Reagan-era rhetoric and appealing to a consistently shrinking audience. The report points out that Republicans have lost five of the last six presidential popular elections.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Fleischer. “Republicans need to be more inviting and inclusive about what it means to be a conservative.”

The report stresses the importance of establishing a much stronger youth base for future success. Fleischer explained, “You get the sense that young people think the Republican Party is too old, too white and too wealthy and that it is not a home for them. Republicans need to listen and welcome young people into the party.”

Getting this group engaged clearly needs to be the party’s top priority. By motivating students, Republicans create the next generation of party members while bringing energy and innovation to current campaigns.

Tea Party leaders have already condemned the report. Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, released a statement saying we “don’t need an ‘autopsy’ report from RNC to know they failed to promote our principles and lost because of it.” Other far-right conservatives, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh, have criticized the report for making the party appear weak and calling for unnecessary reforms of Republican protocols.

This arrogance and resistance to change has led to the major decline in the Republican Party’s influence at the federal level. Its stubbornness has caused voters to see Republicans as outdated and unable to evolve. Fleischer explained, “America is changing. It’s less white than it used to be and more diverse than it used to be. Republicans have to have policies that are conservative and appeal to a growing slice of the electorate.”

Following the November campaign, many criticized Republican candidates’ single-minded policy approach. However, Fleischer said, “We say here (within the committee) that our standards should not be ideological purity, but invite conservatism that recognizes if someone disagrees with us on 20 percent of the issues, that doesn’t make them a 100-percent enemy, it makes them an 80-percent friend.”

A positive step came recently when Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced that he supported gay marriage after reevaluating his views. The true strength of party was apparent as many claimed, that while they might not agree with Portman, they respected him and testified that he's still a good Republican. Fleischer commented that this is an example of how the party really is a “big tent," where many can feel welcome.

While the report outlines a strategic path to grow and strengthen the GOP, the party is still far from the White House. Following a presidential term filled with unfulfilled promises and continued economic woes, no conservative candidate was able to separate himself through the primary process and defeat Barack Obama. Additionally, many Republicans, ranging from Tea Party members to moderates, lost Senate and House races that appeared to be locks. Fleischer and the committee’s plan only works as well as its implementation, which will take significant effort and funds. However, the message and ideas are clearly there to rejuvenate the party — its success just depends on the party’s willingness to join the 21st century.

With party leaders such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and former House speaker Newt Gingrich applauding the report as a great first step, the future is bright for the Republican Party. Clearly, there are significant issues that need addressing, but the platform and principles appear as strong as ever. Inclusivity and innovation could be just the kick-starts the party needs. If the party can become one of a broader base by preaching acceptance, the Republicans will gain the added boost they need to retake the White House in 2016.

Timothy Burroughs can be reached at timburr@umich.edu.