Republican Strategist Cites Clinton as Chance for GOP Comeback

BY Kwame Holman  March 15, 2013 at 11:43 AM EST

Recording the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference
During the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, political consultant Whit Ayres said that it’s time the Republican Party shifted its message and started focusing on new strategies and ideas to build up popular support for American conservativism. Photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call.

Pollster and consultant Whit Ayres has operated at or near the top of Republican political circles for more than 30 years. He says it’s now time for the party to change.

“You don’t lose five of the last six presidential elections in the popular vote if you have got the right message,” Ayres told the NewsHour Thursday. “So we need a new message, new messengers, and a new tone.”

Ayres was standing in a wide, sun-drenched concourse at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor with its majestic views through story-high glass of Washington’s monuments across the Potomac River.

A gaggle of political reporters had surrounded him the moment he emerged from a panel discussion during the opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

He continued his theme from the panel and his primary reason for coming to CPAC — to convince conservatives to embrace comprehensive immigration reform.

“We need a new message particularly on issues like immigration … that is very much in line with Reagan’s tone where he said we welcome anyone who believes in the values of free markets and individual liberty and stronger national defense into our coalition,” he said.

Inside the main ballroom, Ayres had implored activists to appreciate that a party that lost seven of every 10 Latino voters, the nation’s fastest growing group, to President Barack Obama in November needs a complete change in approach.

He said he’s using his skills as a pollster and political hand (he has a Ph.D. in political science) to compile ideas for an over-arching strategy for a re-tooled GOP.

“It’s doing polling. It’s doing focus groups. It’s thinking with big thinkers in the party and it’s putting together a set of ideas that will be consistent with the new America, the new America that I talked about in there, which is not gonna look like the old America – not even close to looking like the old America,” he said. “And yet I’m convinced that the same values of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free markets matter, no matter what a voter looks like.”

And Ayres says it’s not a far-away goal for Republicans to win again nationally.

“We are only one candidate away from winning a presidential election in 2016 and resurrecting the party,” he asserted. “We have challenges now but we are very much in the position the Democrats were in 1988, where they had lost five of six presidential elections.”

He cites how former President Bill Clinton reinvigorated the Democratic Party. “[It's] like they [were] wandering in the wilderness and there was no place for them to go and along came Bill Clinton who said, ‘I’m for ending welfare as we know it; I am for the death penalty; and by the way, Sister Souljah, that’s not how we talk about fellow Americans.’ And in one election he turned it around.”

Like many at CPAC, Ayres acknowledged the GOP picked up a reputation for being too conservative during the last election cycle.

But he sees hope there, too, for a party that honors all its disparate parts.

“In America, we only have two parties, which means by definition both parties are coalitions of people many of whom don’t agree on every issue. But good politicians manage to stitch together winning coalitions. For the Democrats, on the center-left and Republicans on the center-right. We don’t all expect to agree … I am convinced we can still mold those folks who may disagree on some issues into one coalition.”

It was a mantra of many CPAC attendees — a bigger political tent that takes in Libertarians, the Christian right, pro-immigration reform advocates, and others.

I asked Ayers what else is in his “manifesto” for a new GOP. His response? “I’ll let ‘ya know when we finish.”


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