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Lipstick on an Elephant

Deep behind a tangle of denial and rebranding initiatives, a GOP resuscitation plan emerges.

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Anyone who turned to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “five stages of grief” to track the fallout from the Republicans’ 2012 defeat could see that Denial arrived right on schedule Election Night, when Karl Rove self-immolated rather than accept that Barack Obama had won reelection. Anger followed the morning ­after—with much Republican rage aimed at Mitt Romney, a loser so instantly maligned and deserted by his own troops that until he finally resurfaced this week for an interview on Fox News he might as well have been on a Mormon mission to Mars for all anyone knew or cared. What we’ve seen ever since is Bargaining, tinged with more than a touch of stage four, Depression. Republicans of various stripes are caroming like billiard balls among cable-news channels, op-ed pages, and WTF postmortem panel discussions, trying to identify a formula that might salvage a party embraced by 22 percent of the public, according to a USA Today–Pew survey in mid-February.

It’s gotten so gloomy that at the annual House Republican retreat just before Inauguration Day in January, the motivational speakers included the executive who turned around Domino’s Pizza and the first blind man to reach the top of Mount Everest. Were the GOP a television network, it would be fifth-place NBC, falling not only behind its traditional competitors but Univision. Every postelection poll, with the possible exception of any conducted in Dick Morris’s bunker, finds that voters favor the Democrats’ positions on virtually every major issue, usually by large margins: immigration reform, gun restrictions, abortion rights, gay marriage, climate change, raising the minimum wage, and the need for higher tax revenue to accompany spending cuts in any deficit-reduction plan. Given that losing hand, what’s a party to do? It’s far easier for NBC to cancel Smash than for the GOP to give the hook to an elected official like Steve Stockman, the Texas congressman whose guest at the State of the Union was the rocker turned NRA spokesman Ted Nugent, best known for telling the president to “suck on my machine gun.” For every Todd Akin who fades, another crazy Stockman (or two) springs up. Strategies to work around the party’s entrenched liabilities have been proliferating since November 6, as Republicans desperately try to stave off the terminal Kübler-Ross stage of Acceptance.

The Republican Plan A is simplicity itself: steal future elections by disenfranchising those Americans who keep rejecting the party at the polls (blacks, young people, Latinos). This strategy was hatched even before Election Day, with widespread local efforts to reinstate Jim Crow obstacles at the ballot box, from reduced voting hours to new identification requirements. After the election, a parallel scheme was revived: state laws that propose slicing and dicing the Electoral College to increase the odds that a Republican presidential candidate could win an election while losing the popular vote. Next up is the Supreme Court, ruling this term on a new challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That signature civil-rights law, born in the crucible of Martin Luther King Jr.’s incarceration in Selma, was reenacted with bipartisan unanimity in 2006 (the vote was 98-0 in the Senate, 390-33 in the House). But now that the GOP is under existential threat, the highly political chief justice, John Roberts, seems poised to do what he has to do. He’s already on record saying that “things have changed in the South”—which may come as news to the African-Americans forced to wait for hours in Florida (and elsewhere) to vote last November.

Plan B for a GOP resuscitation is—or was—the quick fix of finding a ready-made messiah, preferably one who could be anointed the new Ronald Reagan. Such was the Platonic idea, if not the reality, of Marco Rubio, the 41-year-old first-term Cuban-American senator from Florida who induced orgasms among conservative elders with his potential to put “a new face” on the party. Rubio is “the best communicator” since Reagan, in the estimation of Rove—an analogy echoed by many, including John McCain. (McCain has also judged Romney and Sarah Palin to be Reaganesque, but never mind.) Rubio “can explain his views on Univision without a translator,” enthused the awestruck Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speech­writer. Or, as another onetime Bush spin artist, Nicolle Wallace, chimed in: “He’s everything we need and more. He’s modern. He knows who Tupac is. He’s on social media.” A Spanish-speaking young (or at least youngish) guy who has listened to a black person (if only through headphones) and is on that newfangled Facebook—cool! The only way he could check more demographic boxes coveted by Republicans would be if he turned out to be gay. Alas, Plan B fizzled while the Time cover anointing Rubio “The Republican Savior” was still on the newsstands. The savior’s disastrous response to Obama’s State of the Union address did for a bottle of Poland Spring water what Clint Eastwood did for an empty chair.


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