It’s not the ideas, it’s the image.
That’s what many Republicans, stung by their losses in this month’s U.S. elections and searching for ways to rebrand their party, are concluding as they position themselves for negotiations over averting the so-called fiscal cliff, a set of automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January.
Far from jettisoning their opposition to raising taxes in a post-election show of acquiescence to President Barack Obama, Republicans are working to moderate their rhetoric while standing firm on their negotiating position.
“With so many challenges that are ahead of us, the American people need to see us act courageously, think selflessly and lead boldly,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Nov. 14. He told reporters there are “ways to put revenue on the table without increasing tax rates.”
David Winston, a Republican polling specialist, said his party must use the fiscal cliff talks to make their economic case in a more compelling way than defeated nominee Mitt Romney was able to during the presidential campaign. That includes making a distinction between raising tax rates -- which is anathema to most of its supporters -- and overhauling the tax code in ways that may raise revenue while also promoting growth.
“The reason it’s a center-right country is that people have this belief that economic growth solves all problems, but during the campaign, there wasn’t a clear translation of how the Republicans were going to get to economic growth,” Winston said.
Party of ‘No’
Republican governors, lawmakers and strategists say they also need to shed the public perception that they represent the party of “no” and show they’re willing to compromise to help the economy recover. At the same time, party leaders still see their basic economic message of keeping taxes low and shrinking government as a winning one.
“We have to be careful as to how we couch it,” Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said during a discussion at the Republican Governors Association meeting yesterday in Las Vegas. “We have allowed the other party to couch it that we’re trying to protect the upper 2 percent of the population.”
Republicans have “got to keep putting solutions out -- not just blocking things, but putting out solutions, and forcing others to bring out alternatives,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said in an interview. “They need to push a positive plan first and see what’s offered up.”
Utah Governor Gary Herbert said in an interview, “Compromise should not be a dirty word. That doesn’t mean you cave on your principles. We all understand there’s a need to balance the budget.”
The party’s challenge goes beyond the fiscal cliff. The election, which included Romney’s loss to Obama and a failed attempt to regain control of the U.S. Senate, revealed the extent to which Republicans are failing to attract support from the fastest-growing U.S. demographic groups, Hispanics chief among them, to compete with Democrats.
“Nothing focuses the attention quite like getting your butt whipped,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, whose post-election survey for the public opinion group Resurgent Republic found that while Romney won a “landslide” among white voters, he underperformed the last two nominees of his party among Hispanics and did even worse with Asians. “We will adapt, because nobody likes to lose.”
It’s a shift Republicans demonstrated their eagerness to achieve this week after Romney, in a conference call with donors Nov. 14, said Obama won the election in part because of “gifts” he bestowed on voters, particularly minorities, through government programs.
At a news conference in Las Vegas, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal rejected the remarks as “absolutely wrong,” and said the “fundamental takeaway” for Republicans from the election should be: “We need two messages to get out loudly and clearly: One, we are fighting for 100 percent of the voters, and secondly, our policies benefit every American who wants to pursue the American dream -- period. No exceptions.”
The struggle begins today with a White House meeting between Obama and congressional leaders on what steps to take to stave off automatic tax increases and spending cuts that will take effect should they fail to strike a deal on other ways to reduce the deficit.
“The problem for Republicans is, you’re going to have to find a middle ground -- whatever that is -- but I don’t think they’re going to get pushed in a corner on this; it’s got to be perceived that you’re not walking out of here getting scalped,” said former Republican Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia. “They’ve got to raise some revenue to close the deficit, but the thing they have to be careful of is the Republican base. If they get alienated, it becomes a lot harder to do anything.”
Boehner began the public negotiating last week by striking a conciliatory tone in his post-election comments, telling reporters he was willing to work with Obama -- as the two tried and failed to do last summer -- to craft a deficit reduction plan that includes raising tax revenue.
Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the president’s proposal for $1.6 trillion in additional revenue from the wealthy “a joke.”
A primary reason Boehner and McConnell are straddling their messages between cooperation and confrontation is that their base that isn’t enthusiastic about a compromise.
In a post-election poll conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg for Democracy Corps and presented with Ayres’ findings at a Bipartisan Policy Center summit this week, 63 percent of respondents said Republicans should work with the president, nearly double the proportion who said they should aim to block his agenda. That included more than 90 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents, yet less than a third of Republicans. Twice as many of them said their party’s representatives in Congress should oppose the president’s plans.
Republican leaders face “an electorate with a different set of priorities” than they have, Greenberg said, and a base of supporters who are “saying they want their members to go there and be a check on the president and oppose his plans.”
At least one Republican sees a way to do both.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, one of Romney’s Republican primary rivals, said Boehner is in a position similar to that of Democrat Tip O’Neill -- a Massachusetts congressman who held the speakership from 1977 to 1987 -- after Republican President Ronald Reagan won re-election.
“O’Neill knew that he could not cut a deal with Reagan; he also knew that the American people wouldn’t tolerate it if it looked like his party was stonewalling,” Gingrich said. “Republicans cannot now be seen as stonewalling.”
Rather than compromising now with Obama, Republicans should propose their own solution and then allow Democrats to propose their own, he said. “You show a way forward and then allow the president to offer an alternative,” Gingrich said.