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Republicans Take Stock of Losses, Map Strategy to Retake the White House

March 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, unveiled an unsparing, 98-page report on the party's 2012 presidential election loss. Gwen Ifill gets analysis from USA Today's Susan Page and Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report on the GOP's soul-searching and future-looking tactics.

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to politics, as Republicans plot a path forward with a new report that examines what they must do to reclaim the White House.

Last November, Mitt Romney became the fifth of the last six Republican presidential nominees to fail to win the popular vote. Last week, he told a meeting of party conservatives that he fell short.

MITT ROMNEY, Former Republican Presidential Candidate: As someone who just lost the last election, I’m probably not in the best position to chart the course for the next one.

GWEN IFILL: Romney’s defeat has inspired much Republican soul-searching. And, today, party chairman Reince Priebus unveiled his solution.

REINCE PRIEBUS, Republican National Committee Chairman: We want to build our party. And we want to do it with bold strokes to show that we’re up to the challenge and we’re done with business as usual.

GWEN IFILL: The 98-page report detailed the party’s failures in 2012.

REINCE PRIEBUS: As it makes clear, there’s no one reason we lost. Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren’t inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital. And our primary and debate process needed improvement. So there’s no one solution. There’s a long list of them.

GWEN IFILL: Called the Growth and Opportunity Project, or GOP, the report is unsparingly self-critical, conceding, among other things, that the party is increasingly seen as the province of — quote — “stuffy old men.”

The report recommends the GOP spent $10 million dollars toward new minority outreach efforts and even more on technology and building an improved voter database, embrace comprehensive immigration reforms, and restructure its presidential nominating process to reduce the number of primary debates and settle on a nominee earlier in the year.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush used last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference to foreshadow many of the conclusions contained in today’s report.

FORMER GOV. JEB BUSH, R-Fla.: We must move beyond the divisive and extraneous issues that currently define the public debate. Never again, never again can the Republican Party simply write off entire segments of our society because we assume our principles have limited appeal. They have broad appeal.

GWEN IFILL: But Sen. Marco Rubio told the conservative meeting that the party shouldn’t embrace change for its own sake.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: And so our challenge is to create an agenda applying our principles. Our principles, they still work — applying our time-tested principles to the challenges of today.

GWEN IFILL: Yet, the biggest hits at last week’s conference hailed from outside the national party mainstream. They included Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Joining us now to talk about how deep the party’s fissures go are Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call.

To listen to Jeb Bush and Reince Priebus talk, Susan, I got the sense that they were giving a belated rebuttal to the Mitt Romney “47 percent will never vote for us” argument.

SUSAN PAGE, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today: And look what they called this. They called this an autopsy on the Republican Party. On whom do you do an autopsy? Something that is dead.

I think that Reince Priebus, Jeb Bush and other establishment Republicans feel that the party has gone seriously astray, and in an America that is increasingly diverse and younger, that it’s chartered an appeal that will no — will not be able to win a national election unless they change course.

GWEN IFILL: How unusual was it for you to read something, 100 pages worth, of that much, what — I think I called it unsparing criticism.

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Right.

Well, it was very forthright and forthcoming as to the party’s problems. Susan and I were talking about this. And we have seen parties go through this angst over the years, over the decades.


STUART ROTHENBERG: But you get the sense that there are many people in the Republican Party that believe this is an unusually difficult period that they face and that the future is rather bleak unless they make some dramatic changes.

GWEN IFILL: Are they talking message or are they talking policy?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, a lot of this talked about message, but I wonder if they’re correct.

You can talk about putting something in a nice box, but if the content of the box haven’t changed, I’m not sure it appeals to people. You can talk about spending $10 million dollars on outreach to minority groups, but if you don’t change the policies that have prompted a lot of minorities, African-Americans, Hispanic, Asian-Americans to go with the Democratic Party, I’m not sure it has an effect.

GWEN IFILL: I remember hearing about the big tent many years ago.


Well, part of this is about mechanics. It’s about how many phone calls and who makes the calls and the amount of data you have and microtargeting and things like that. And that, I think the national party can talk about and do and raise money for.

I think Susan is right and you’re right that the problem is the message and whether this is a big tent party or not. This report was clearly written by big tent folks. When you look at the people who are involved in drawing it together, a top ally of Jeb Bush, Ari Fleischer, who is a big tent Republican, the National Committee woman from Puerto Rico, the national committeeman from South Carolina who happens to be African-American, these are folks who understand the party has a message problem.

The problem is that there are lots of Republicans and conservatives who think a different message is a better message.

GWEN IFILL: So, before we go any further, we should say this is what the party chairman and the party mainstream says, but that’s not necessarily what anybody else is saying who have been driving the party.

SUSAN PAGE: Well, that’s right.

Who has been — the foot soldiers for GOP for a generation have been provided by evangelical Christians, by social conservatives, who wouldn’t be happy, for instance, with a party that was — moderated its position on abortion rights or that embraced same-sex marriage. That’s one problem.

And where is some of the energy from the party now? Who won the CPAC straw poll? It was Rand Paul, not an establishment Republican, a person from the libertarian wing of the party. These other parts of the party are not necessarily together, even on some of the mechanical things.

Like, the report recommends going to primaries, as opposed to caucuses and conventions, because that’s a broader electorate. Well, caucuses and conventions are the way somebody like a Rand Paul or even a Rick Santorum is going to be able to be a real competitor for the nomination.

GWEN IFILL: And it also talks about cutting in half the number of primary debates, so a little bit of the early season cannibalization doesn’t occur.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes. Well, we see this after a party loses a presidential race or two. There’s …

GWEN IFILL: Whatever they did last time, they shouldn’t do.

STUART ROTHENBERG: That’s right. They try to do something else.

But I think the problem for the RNC is this, that our politics and our lives, our world, has changed. We’re no longer — politics is no longer dominated by the hierarchical national parties that 40, 50 years ago could dictate when they’re going to have conventions and who can run for office and raise the money.

And now you have all these other sources of power and influence, whether it’s talk radio or Tea Party groups or Club for Growth.

GWEN IFILL: And they concede that they want these friends and allies to take a lot of the — a lot off their plate.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, but the friends and allies have a different view of where the party needs to go.


STUART ROTHENBERG: That’s the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask about outreach for a moment, because one of the things they did in this report was a complete turnaround from where the party has been. And that’s on Hispanic outreach, in saying that the party should embrace, the word is, comprehensive immigration reform.

Even a lot of Democrats aren’t saying that yet.

SUSAN PAGE: And contrast that to what we heard about immigration in all those primary debates …

GWEN IFILL: About deportation.

SUSAN PAGE: … where there was a rush to see how harsh you could be on the issue of immigration.

The Republican Party nationally is trying to turn on a dime on the issue of immigration. But, you know, you still have to get an immigration bill through a Republican-controlled House. And you don’t hear — you hear from a lot of members either silence or they continue to represent districts where comprehensive immigration reform, which means a path to legal status for the 11 million illegal immigrants who are here today, is not — that would not be a popular thing in a lot of these Republican House districts.

Immigration is perhaps the best possibility for a big piece of legislation to get through this year, but it is not a done deal.

GWEN IFILL: When you — go ahead.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, I was going to say, I think it reflects party insiders, probably party establishment, how strongly they feel about Hispanics as an important constituency in the party going forward.

GWEN IFILL: The one thing that Gov. Romney and Reince Priebus in this report said is that the future of the party lies in statehouses, with governors. And that’s — it raises an interesting question, because their last nominee was a governor, a former blue state governor. So, how is that the solution?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, because they have elected governors. Right? They have got 30 governors in this country now. They have a lot less success electing senators or presidents.

And some of the most interesting figures in the party, some of the figures who might be able to kind of bridge the divides, the factions of the GOP are in fact governors, a Bobby Jindal, a Chris Christie perhaps, a Susana Martinez. Some of the more interesting Republicans that might have broad appeal are in the statehouses. So, I think that’s why he talked about that.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, I understand this argument.

And it’s true. Governors have to deal — balance budgets. And they have got to raise revenue and cut spending to balance the budgets. And they have to deliver — deliver services. And so kind of it’s more like constituency-oriented stuff.

But let’s remember that why we have most of these Republican governors — 2010 election, which was a Republican wave. And I went earlier today and I looked to see what percentage of the African-American vote some of these governors got and Hispanics. It’s not that all — not all that different. Romney got 44 percent of women. Scott in Florida got 45, Walker in Wisconsin 48. Kasich got 47. When you look at younger voters and Hispanics, they did better, but not dramatically so.

GWEN IFILL: Not necessarily. So, we don’t know whether this is going to be a report that ends up on a shelf or is this fundamental change.

Susan Page — what’s your name again? — Stu Rothenberg, thank you both very much.

Online, you can read more about the party’s self-examination, what Chairman Priebus said today, and you can find a link to the full RNC report. Plus, watch behind-the-scenes video dispatches from the weekend’s conservative conference. That’s all on our Politics page.