Lipstick on an Elephant

Photo: Ocean/Corbis

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.

That leaves Plan C, by far the most widespread, if unruly, of the Republican salvage plans on view: a wholesale rebranding of the GOP. The only trouble with this approach is that there is no agreement among its adherents about how to go about it, or what the new brand should offer beyond a front man who speaks Spanish, owns an iPod, and is as comfortable with Twitter and Instagram as Reagan was in front of movie and television cameras. Yet if you get to the bottom of all the contradictory rebranding scenarios—and factor in the party’s immovable stance in Washington’s sequestration showdown—a plausible, time-honored path to a successful Republican future does emerge, albeit one that is none of the above.

Many Republicans in the rebranding claque, from Virginia governor Bob ­McDonnell to the ubiquitous pundits Laura Ingraham and S. E. Cupp, believe their party most of all has a “messaging” problem. “This is about tone,” says McDonnell, who posits that Republicans must start “showing people what we’re for instead of what we’re against.” Newt Gingrich says the GOP should be “the happy party.” Reince Priebus, the Republican chairman, proposes building an “exciting party that smiles.” Frank Luntz, the focus-group guru behind Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America,” has joined Roger Ailes of Fox News in calling for a whole “new language” (presumably provided by Luntz, for a fee) emphasizing empathy. Ailes has proposed that the negative phrase “illegal immigration” be retired in favor of “a Judeo-Christian approach to immigration.”

The most elaborate pitch I’ve seen for a GOP messaging overhaul was crafted by Mark McNeilly, a former marketing executive who served at IBM during its own rebranding contortions. Writing in the business magazine Fast Company, McNeilly lamented postelection polls showing that voters associate Democrats with terms “appealing to growing segments of the voter population” (that would be “Mainstream, Young, Current, For the People, For Minorities, For Women”) but associate Republicans with “Extreme, Old, Out-of-Date, For the Wealthy, For Whites, For Men.” Among McNeilly’s solutions were for Republicans to push policies that cater to children, promote federalism (and thereby remove social issues, “a big ‘inhibitor to purchase’ ” among young voters, from the national stage), and banish the elephant logo, which “brings nothing positive to the table.” (Perhaps the new logo could be :), in keeping with the advice of Gingrich and Priebus.) McNeilly also wants to retool the acronym GOP by having it stand for “Growth and Opportunity Party” rather than “Grand Old Party.” As he elaborated, grand is “a word no one still alive uses today unless they are referring to a type of piano,” and old is “a negative perception the party needs to move away from.” Helpfully—or not—he cited BP, which morphed from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum,” as an example the GOP might profitably follow.

Whether by coincidence or under his tutelage, a striking number of Republican politicians are busy executing ideas in his playbook. For some time, Marsha Blackburn, a television-hogging Republican congresswoman from Tennessee, has been beating the drum for recasting the GOP as the “Great Opportunity Party.” A kinder, gentler postelection Eric Cantor has supplemented his “You Cut” website with a new one under the rubric “Making Life Work” and is now talking about children every chance he can. “What I say is we’ve got a place I think all of us can come together, and that is for the kids,” he said when discussing immigration reform in an appearance last month on Meet the Press. Cantor then moved on to the subject of “a dad here in the inner city,” observing that “what we care about, and what he cares about, is his kids.” Cantor added, “The point is we’ve got to be talking about helping folks,” which meant invoking still another kid: “I’ve got a constituent, she’s 12 years old, her name is Katie. She was diagnosed with cancer at age 1. I mean, can you imagine?” He did not offer Katie any health-care assistance—but did say, “The federal government’s got a role in medical research,” presumably as long as it doesn’t involve stem cells or cost any taxpayer money.

Listening to this pabulum, I find it hard not to think of Veep, the satirical television series I work on, in which the title character, the vice-president, played by Julia Louis-­Dreyfus, is constantly pandering to voters with empty slogans like “Politics is about people!” Veep plays it for laughs, and it’s hard to imagine that some voters aren’t laughing at Cantor, Blackburn, Priebus, Gingrich, et al. Equally laughable, I would argue, are the bald attempts at rebranding being practiced by Fox News, which has traded the acrimonious Palin and Dick Morris for the ostensibly more diverse and empathetic Herman Cain and Scott Brown. Surely the same Latino voters who will never forget Romney’s call for immigrant “self-deportation” during the 2012 campaign have similar memories of Cain’s gleeful plug for an electrified border fence with a sign reading IT WILL KILL YOU in both English and Spanish.

A less cheesy rebranding regimen is being whipped up by moderate conservative pundits like Josh Barro of Bloomberg View, Ross Douthat of the Times, and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, who want to reinvent actual Republican policy so that it will focus on the needs of the same middle-class Americans apotheosized by Obama. George Will, among others on the right, has gone so far as to call for breaking up the big banks. “The perception that the Republican Party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms,” is how Ponnuru crystallized the problem.

But there are more than a few barriers to realizing this rescue plan. As the political scientist John Sides has written, the association of the Republican Party with the rich and big business—and of the Democrats with the less well-off—was as much a fixture in polls in 1953 as it was in 2012. What’s remained immutable for six decades cannot be changed overnight, even if there were a will and a way in the party. And there is no will or way. Republicans still oppose Wall Street reform and upper-bracket tax cuts while balking at raising the minimum wage; they have failed to formulate any compelling policy to alleviate the No. 1 cause of middle-class insecurity, health insurance, unless you count Romney­care, the Obamacare Ur-text they disowned. Though moderate conservative pundits may offer ideas for economic remedies that might help the non-rich, no GOP politicians with any clout embrace them. This compelled Douthat to wave a white flag in a blog entry last month, “Real Republican reinvention is a cause in search of a standard-bearer.”

That’s because real Republican leaders don’t want any reinvention that ventures much beyond forced smiles; retooled, focus-­group-tested language (in English and Spanish); and blather about “the kids.” As another moderate conservative pundit, Kathleen Parker, has conceded since the election, her party now “is the fringe.” The GOP’s problem isn’t bad messaging; it’s that its message has been, if anything, all too readily understood. When Akin talks about “legitimate rape” or McDonnell endorses a bill that would impose transvaginal probes even on rape victims seeking abortions, they are not garbling their message but saying it outright, loud and clear. The same goes for Joe Scarborough, who recently branded Paul Krugman an “extremist” comparable to Wayne LaPierre, and Senator Ted Cruz, the rising new tea-party heartthrob from Texas who essentially accused the former Republican senator (and Vietnam hero) Chuck Hagel of being a North Korean Commie mole during his confirmation hearings. The message of the GOP vox populi is no less forthright: Republican audiences at the presidential-primary debates booed a gay American soldier serving in Iraq, cheered the record number of executions conducted on Rick Perry’s watch in Texas, and cried out “Yeah!” when a moderator asked Ron Paul if a 30-year-old man in a coma without health insurance should be allowed to die.

All these views are consistent with the actual political leadership of the GOP, as opposed to the more centrist standard-bearers conservative Beltway pundits fantasize about in their dreams. In a recent bout of algorithm-crunching, Nate Silver drew on detailed compilations of congressional voting records, fund-raising sources, and public issue statements to assign conservative “scores” to major Republican politicians of the past half-century. The scores for the new generation of national leaders (and potential presidential candidates) favored by the party’s base were all high—Jindal (44), Rubio (51), McDonnell (53), Cruz (53), Paul Ryan (55), Rand Paul (65)—placing almost all of them to the right of such leaders as Richard Nixon (22), George H.W. Bush (33), McCain (39), Romney (39), Palin (41), Reagan (44), and George W. Bush (46). Chris Christie (9) and Jon Huntsman (17) may be beloved by what remains of “moderate” Republicans, but they’re the ones who are off-message with the majority of the GOP, not Rubio or McDonnell or Ryan or Paul.

This is why Karl Rove’s “Conservative Victory Project,” which would oppose rape-obsessed candidates like Akin when they surface in GOP Senate primaries, was dead on arrival. Republicans vote for candidates like Akin in primaries because they actually believe in them, not because they are duped. Let Rove throw his donors’ money against Steve King, the nativist congressman toying with a 2014 Senate run in Iowa, and the base will strike back. Indeed, it already has. Hardly had Rove announced his new project than a prominent tea-party organization, Tea Party Patriots, sent out an e-mail superimposing his face on a photo of Heinrich Himmler. The right-wing radio talker Mark Levin was so infuriated that he ranted, “Who the hell died and made Karl Rove queen for the day?” Erick Erickson, who runs the popular blog RedState, wrote that “any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement.”

Which brings us to Plan D: What if the GOP doesn’t change at all? Certainly that seems to be the case thus far, for all the public clamoring of conservative pundits for a more inclusive and constructive brand. The base is still screaming for a border fence at town-hall meetings. Diversity remains a subject of internal prattle, not practice. At the House’s Williamsburg retreat, a panel on “successful communication with minorities and women” had a Latino moderator, two Latino women, three white men, no white women, and no blacks. The participants in a postelection National Review panel on “What Is Wrong With the Right?” were six men, no women. Even a putative young reformer like Jindal, who has demanded that Republicans stop being “the stupid party,” has pointedly said that the GOP should not “moderate, equivocate, or otherwise abandon our principles”—specifically listing abortion, marriage, and stopping “European socialism” among the nonnegotiable articles of faith. The country, he says, “doesn’t need two Democratic parties”—echoing Barry Goldwater’s old battle cry that America needs “a choice, not an echo.”

Nowhere is the Republicans’ commitment to providing a clear choice more visible than in their intransigence on sequestration. In this Beltway battle, the newly reelected president holds all the cards when it comes to public opinion. A Pew poll in late February showed that, by a large margin, voters would blame Republicans in Congress over Obama for the pain inflicted by across-the-board federal budget cuts. A mere 19 percent of Americans agree with the GOP position that tax increases should be off the table in any deficit negotiations. But the Republicans nonetheless stuck to their script. They were willing to lose the public-relations war, willing even to be hated. Might this be because they have a longer view?

After Goldwater lost by a landslide in 1964—a far more sweeping defeat than Romney’s—the GOP took a hit in public stature that makes its present travails look tame. In the account of the journalist Theodore H. White, Goldwater’s chief speechwriter, Karl Hess, couldn’t even get a patronage job as an elevator operator on the Hill in 1965 because of his association with the debacle. Soul-searching moderates and Establishment types of the early sixties, fearing that the GOP would go the way of the Whigs, behaved much as their counterparts have been doing now, calling for more inclusiveness and less “obstruction and negativism,” according to Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s invaluable recent history of moderate Republicanism’s demise. Charles Percy, the Illinois centrist who lost his 1964 governor’s race, argued that fellow reformers must “take this party away from being a sort of Anglo-Saxon, white Protestant party.” Even the conservatives running the Texas GOP agreed that they had to attract new constituencies like “blue-collar workers and Latin Americans,” as the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described those constituencies back then.

But then as now, it was the hard right, not the moderates, that constituted the party’s base and the source of its grassroots energy. Then as now, the GOP was determined to pander to the Old South rather than court minorities. (Goldwater received 6 percent of the black vote; so did Romney.) Then as now, the right could argue that most Americans still preferred the bedrock conservative plank of limited government to the activist Washington offered by Democrats. In a poll taken in August of 1964, Lyndon Johnson received high marks as a leader and was unambiguously headed toward a resounding victory over the unpopular, shoot-from-the-hip Goldwater. But the same poll also showed that most Americans were opposed to the swollen federal budget and LBJ’s big-government projects: civil rights, the war on poverty, medical care for the aged. In our own time, polls on and since Election Day have revealed a similar disconnect: Support for Obama and for nearly all Democratic policies is contradicted by clear majorities who think government does “too much” and threatens “personal rights and freedoms.”

Conservatives have solid reasons to believe that over time their position will prevail if they wait out the hits they take along the way. That’s a lesson that was learned after 1964. Much as right-wing purists like Mark Levin and Erick Erickson rail against Karl Rove’s deviations from tea-party orthodoxy in 2013, so Goldwater’s loyalists and heirs stood firm in defeat, fending off their party’s erstwhile reformers. In the 1964 postelection issue of National Review, Ronald Reagan, still two years away from being elected governor of California, condemned “traitors” who might try to reclaim the party from true conservatives. Sixteen years later, he and the modern conservative movement had driven most of the “traitors” out of the party hierarchy and taken charge.

These days, the GOP has no new Reagan as yet waiting in the wings. It faces a demographic cliff that may take far longer than two years to scale, no matter how many blind mountain climbers deliver pep talks—especially if Republicans in Congress can’t even mobilize on immigration reform this year. But the party controls far more of American governance, federal and local, than it did after Goldwater’s defeat. It has continued to push the country—and both the current and previous Democratic president—incrementally to the right. Whatever the acronym stands for, the GOP remains nothing if not true to itself. It could not be rebranded even if it wanted to change—and it does not want to. A cosmetic face-lift would fool no one. Its current leaders are more faithful than ever—more faithful than Nixon, Ford, and both George Bushes ever were—to the principles laid down by Goldwater and Reagan. In the end, the party’s best bet may be not to do something but just stand there until history cycles back to it once more.

Lipstick on an Elephant