Conservatives have spoken a lot about party reinvention since the presidential election, but the rhetoric has yet to translate into real change.
Talk of Republican reinvention began almost immediately after President Obama was re-elected. In the nearly three months since, conservatives in and out of office have spoken of soul-searching and ideological introspection, and a number of party leaders have begun to present their visions for a more competitive GOP. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, for instance, spoke Friday about seven things he thinks conservatives should change about themselves–the highlight being number 4: “We must stop being the stupid party.”
“It’s time for a new Republican party that talks like adults,” said Jindal. “It’s time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We’ve had enough of that.”
Rep. Paul Ryan shared a similar message Saturday in his speech at the National Review Institute Summit: ”We can’t get rattled. We won’t play the villain in [Obama's] morality plays. We have to stay united. We have to show that—if given the chance—we can govern. We have better ideas.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks, however, is not wholly convinced that the rhetoric will translate to real change. “In his speech…Jindal spanked his party for its stale clichés but then repeated the same Republican themes that have earned his party its 33% approval ratings: Government bad. Entrepreneurs good,” wrote Brooks in an op-ed Tuesday. “In this reinvention process, Republicans seem to have spent no time talking to people who didn’t already vote for them.”
Brooks argues that the GOP narrative of perpetual government encroachment is too deeply embedded in the psyches of conservatives–particularly those in the South and Rural West–for any reinvention to occur. “It’s probably futile to try to change current Republicans,” he writes, advocating instead for a “second” wing of the GOP which is less hostile to all forms of government.
From where and which constituencies this second wing will arise, Brooks doesn’t say, but ideologically it “wouldn’t be based on the Encroachment Story…It would be filled with people who recoiled at President Obama’s second Inaugural Address because of its excessive faith in centralized power, but who don’t share the absolute antigovernment story of the current G.O.P.”
A new story will require new storytellers–especially when the old story has been peddled for so long by what fellow journalist David Frum has called the “conservative entertainment complex.” Outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh still hold influence on a great number of conservatives and their elected leaders.
In response to Monday’s bipartisan proposal on immigration reform–a critical issue for Republicans trying to bridge the Latino vote gap–Limbaugh said:
“My guess is going to be that after we listen to some of the sound bites of, say, Senator Schumer and Senator McCain and Senator Menendez, some of the others on this bipartisan group announcing immigration reform today, my guess is that it’s gonna sound very close to exactly what we were told in 1986 with the first amnesty. I’ll bet you we hear that if we do this, we’ll never have to do it again. We’ve got to do this ’cause it’s out of control. We’ve gotta do this, secure the border, and so forth … I don’t know that there’s any stopping this. It’s up to me and Fox News.”
In an interview with Sen. Marco Rubio Tuesday–one of the members of the bipartisan immigration group–Limbaugh softened his tone. He even seemed to accept the five-page legislative outline Rubio and friends proposed the day before, an outline which includes something Limbaugh rejects: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (or “amnesty,” as Limbaugh calls it).
“I know this is a tough issue. I do. I know people are uncomfortable about it. It doesn’t feel right in some instances to, you know, allow people who have come here undocumented to be able to stay,” Rubio told Limbaugh. “I know that some people are uncomfortable with that notion. I know this is a tough issue to work through. But I would just say this to you. If this country goes downhill, there’s nowhere else in the world. There’s nothing else. There’s no replacement for it. There’s no alternative for America. It’s either us or no one.”
The rhetoric from conservatives like Rubio, Jindal, and Ryan is strong and self-critical. For the Republican reinvention to take, however, the rest of the party will have to accept the criticism.