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Republicans can learn from Democrats about rebranding their party

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Molly Ball offers the GOP some GOOD ADVICE:

The party is in desperate straits. It has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. It consoles itself with a majority in Congress, but even there its ranks are dwindling. On nearly every issue of national significance—from social affairs to fiscal matters to foreign policy—its positions are increasingly out of step with those of the majority of Americans. Riven by factions, it sometimes seems more like a collection of squabbling interest groups than a coherent political entity. People have started muttering that it might become merely a regional concern, or even go the way of the Whigs and die out.

This is the plight of the Republican Party today… Polls show that the party’s stance on practically every issue is a loser: same-sex marriage, international affairs, immigration, even taxes and the deficit. But this dismal situation was, a quarter century ago, the plight of the Democrats.

In the late 1980s, Democrats were the party of racial quotas, handgun bans, and welfare rights, viewed as soft on crime, weak on communism, and antagonistic to family values… “You’d look at polls and see that the American public agreed with the Republican Party on every meaningful voting issue,” Bill Andresen, a House Democratic aide at the time, recently recalled. The Democratic brand was so toxic that many of the party’s politicians shunned its liberal national candidates, particularly the 1984 presidential nominee, Walter Mondale…

By 1992, all of that was changing, thanks to the Democratic Leadership Council, a policy group that was founded in 1985 with the goal of reorienting the party around more-centrist ideas. The philosophical realignment it achieved was remarkable. Such shifts, political scientists note, generally come only in the wake of national crises. If today’s Republicans are to change course, they could learn from the DLC.

So how did the DLC do it? The group’s first order of business was to force the party to face facts. Of all the Democrats’ many problems in the late 1980s, the biggest was denial. Party activists professed that their nominees were losing not because they were too liberal but because they weren’t liberal enough. Or they said that the party simply had to do a better job of turning out its base of low-income and minority voters. Or that Democrats’ majorities in Congress and governors’ mansions proved the party was still doing fine. Some insisted that voters were being hoodwinked by the charismatic Ronald Reagan, or were just too racist and backward to embrace the righteousness of Democratic positions.

The bottom line of such defenses—that the party did not need fundamental change—echoes today’s future-of-the-GOP argument.

Liberals didn’t take the DLC’s efforts lying down…The DLC didn’t have party activists on its side, but it was convinced it could win support among the party rank and file. And it had buy-in from elected officials like Virginia Governor Chuck Robb, Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, and a long roster of southern Democratic members of Congress. It had new ideas, such as welfare reform and a national service program. Perhaps most crucial, it had a formidable candidate in Bill Clinton, the obscure Arkansas governor who agreed to become the DLC’s chairman after meeting with From in Little Rock in 1989. In return, the DLC helped launch Clinton’s 1992 campaign operation…

But if the DLC’s example is the yardstick, Republicans have some catching up to do. The recommendations of the party’s autopsy were largely procedural, from emphasizing technology to fiddling with primary and debate calendars. Moreover, the autopsy—the most prominent reform push to date—came from within the party, whereas the DLC had to work outside its party to succeed. Most important, today’s GOP isn’t seeing anything like the bloody, open confrontation that Democratic reformers had with their party’s ideological base… Republican elected officials have shown little will to antagonize conservative activists and the talk-radio crowd. Instead, many insist that the party’s not broken, as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida did at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “We don’t need a new idea,” Rubio said. “The idea is called America, and it still works.”

Watching the GOP’s struggles, former DLCers say they recognize all the old symptoms—the alibis, the search for a procedural panacea, the party committee dominated by diehards. But on the question of whether the Republican Party has just been through its version of 1988, they’re not so sure. As Will Marshall put it: “They know they have a political problem—that’s obvious. But I don’t think they’ve come to grips with the fundamental issue, which is their governing philosophy. I think they’re going to have to lose one more.”

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