Rebuilding GOP through leaders, not blueprints

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:40 PM

Adam Silbert

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat, a bevy of high-profile Republicans — including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour — claim the party needs a reset.

They urge a modernized ideology and a broader appeal (softening on taxes and immigration and using tamer rhetoric).

Or a "serious proctology exam" prescribed by Barbour to help chart their course.

But more likely, the party will transform itself on the shoulders of its next great leaders. That’s because you can’t design an ideology and then find characters to play the parts.

First, the message needs to be authentic. And the leaders will need to have the brass to sell that vision.

Republicans have a history of nominating strong, charismatic leaders — like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Reagan, for instance, convinced the nation to go big on defense spending against the Soviet Union.

Second, charismatic leaders can persuade voters toward his or her vision for the country. Bill Clinton was more moderate than the Democratic base in 1992. (He and running-mate Al Gore hailed from the Democratic Leadership Council, the party’s Southern, centrist faction.) Clinton’s personable, overwhelming charm helped him unify the party at the convention — despite many doubting his viability as the nominee just weeks earlier.

This is particularly important in today’s Republican Party where too much movement to the center may trigger a rebellion (or primary challenge) from its conservative base.

Third, conviction is essential. Romney did not come across as heartfelt and sincere to many swing voters. Some pointed to Romney’s restrained, stiff manner — more about style than issues. Or perhaps it was the perception that Romney "protects the rich" and their "toys," as Jindal explained post-mortem.

Compare this to George W. Bush, who was not as articulate as Romney. Voters felt Bush believed what he said and that he would move in that direction. Gov. Chris Christie speaks his mind whether it hews to the party’s orthodoxy or not — vacillating between keynoting the 2012 convention and inviting President Obama to New Jersey after the hurricane.

Finally, voters in the middle tend to be non-ideological. So redefining the party through scripted policy may be futile. Nor would a narrow focus on Hispanic voters solve Romney’s lower than anticipated performance among white working-class voters.

In the end, Romney failed to explain how his noteworthy business and management backgrounds would "translate to the Oval Office," Real Clear Politics’ Erin McPike wrote recently. He never made the "sale."

The right Republican leaders — with the right personalities — may be able to connect with the electorate next time around. "We shape our own destiny," said New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez in her 2011 inaugural speech, "and we won’t stand still."

But don’t expect them to come from the party’s center. Or, from the establishment Republican Governors Association, which just convened for its annual meeting in Las Vegas. Conservatives like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Indiana Gov.-elect Mike Pence and Sen.-elect Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who recently warned his state could turn bright "blue") hold promise as the next great communicators.

Adam Silbert, an attorney, served as a field organizer for the 2012 Obama campaign


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