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Republican ‘elders’ plot moderate course

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The Republican Party has won more than 60 per cent of the presidential races since Abe Lincoln’s day. But lately, it has been on a losing streak, having come up short in the popular vote in five of the past six White House elections.

So what gives? Party chairman Reince Priebus and a group of party elders think they have some answers, which they put into an extraordinarily candid assessment released Monday.

They argue that too many Republican candidates come off as scary, narrow-minded and out of touch, and they advocate a number of course corrections. Among them, they say, Republicans should:

  • Stop talking only to themselves and become better acquainted with everyday Americans.
  • Build their party around successful and pragmatic governors rather than strident members of Congress.
  • Find candidates who can tailor their messages of economic opportunity to the poor, minorities and women.
  • Stop being so reflexively defensive of corporate executives and the super wealthy.

There will, of course, be much blowback from hard-liners who say the answer is to nominate more stalwartly conservative candidates, and who see the report as a thinly veiled attempt of party regulars to regain control of a party led by insurgents. But it seems to us that Priebus is on the right track.

Without some significant changes, the GOP will find it very difficult to win presidential races. That won’t be good for the party. And it won’t be good for the nation, which benefits from having two strong, credible and competitive parties, one of which advocates smaller government.

Retrenchment — which is essentially what hard-liners are advocating — almost never works as an antidote to repeated disappointment. Just ask Democrats. In 1988, they nominated a Massachusetts liberal (Michael Dukakis) as an answer to the drubbing they had taken four years earlier when their Minnesota liberal candidate (Walter Mondale) went down in flames.

It didn’t work. Indeed, the position of Democrats after that 1988 loss is highly instructive. At that point, they were in even worse shape than Republicans are now. They had lost five of the six previous presidential elections, including two by landslides and two by near-landslides. And the were increasingly being written off.

But then, their turnaround began.

The groundwork had been laid quietly in 1985 with the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group led by pragmatic Democratic governors who advocated moving the party toward the political centre.

The turnaround began in earnest with the nomination of one of those governors, Bill Clinton, for the presidency in 1992. Clinton was both well positioned as a moderate and highly appealing — kind of a Mitt Romney who didn’t put his foot in his mouth or his dog on his roof.

Clinton ran on a platform that included the liberal goal of universal health care and the conservative one of welfare reform. Romney, in contrast, was forced to renounce his moderate gubernatorial accomplishments and take positions on immigration, Medicare and the budget that helped him in the Republican primaries but hurt him in the general election.

Priebus’ "autopsy" of Romney’s defeat confirms the need for Republicans to find candidates with cross-party appeal, look to their governors for leadership and stop committing demographic suicide with overly harsh immigration policies that repel Hispanic voters.

There is something else that Republicans need to do: Regain control of their party.

Several groups within the GOP have set themselves up as power brokers, gate keepers and loyalty enforcers. Sporting names like the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots, they make candidates look less like public servants and more like political hostages of extremist groups.

How many of these changes the GOP can abide is still to be seen. The Republicans remain strong in statehouses and the U.S. House. And they have not undergone the kind of loss they endured in 1964 when Barry Goldwater won only six states. But their recent defeats should prompt them to look at history, both for course corrections and reassurance that parties tend to rebound just when they appear to be at their weakest.

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