Debate Club

Republicans Need a Candidate Who Can Change Everything

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As Republicans assess the disaster that was, for them, the 2012 election, they are gravitating toward the notion that it's not what they said about politics and policy, it's what Americans heard.

Indeed, the group appointed by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to assess the damage and chart a way forward says it doesn't plan to offer any policy prescriptions—just tips on messaging, positioning and communications.

And there is a case to be made for this. While Republicans talked about how government spending was holding back growth, Americans heard tax breaks for the rich. While they talked about the need to rein in entitlements, Americans heard the 47 percent speech. And even though they presented Mitt Romney as someone who cared more about them than President Obama, Americans heard about car elevators for Ann Romney's two Cadillacs and $10,000 bets.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

This occurs on both sides of the aisle. Gay rights proponents thought they heard President Obama call in his inaugural address for federal legislation to implement same-sex marriage in all 50 states. What he actually said, aides made clear later, was that states should approve gay marriage.

Call it selective hearing or rational ignorance, but Americans don't involve themselves all that much in the daily hurly burly of Washington or state-level political battles. The information is out there—the federal government has never been covered as thoroughly as it is now. But Americans have other things to do.

For Republicans, there is some housekeeping to be done, for sure. When it comes to the mechanics of elections—how to identify voters, inspire them to join the process and ensure they make it to the polls on election day—Democrats have opened a significant lead. And there is room for Republicans to think about how they frame issues and select candidates—they've blown chances to retake the Senate in each of the last two cycles. They can be more prudent, as Paul Ryan says, more responsible, responsive, positive, inclusive. They can do more to appeal to minorities, to compete for every vote. They can stop saying no to everything.

But this party's political problems won't be turned around by tightening the party infrastructure or refining message and candidate selection. By large margins, Americans say they know the country is headed toward fiscal disaster and President Obama does not seem sufficiently concerned. Republican tax and fiscal policies are proven electoral winners, and Americans appreciate GOP efforts to shake up the moribund education system.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

The Democratic Party went through this not so long ago. After the 1976 election, which basically served as Americans' final chance to repudiate Richard Nixon, they found themselves out of sync. They were soft on crime, defense, and irresponsible behavior. They spent too much and had no direction. Reagan beat them twice. Then George H.W. Bush won in 1988 and had an approval rating hovering around 90 percent a year before the 1992 election.

But then it all changed. Not because a committee met. Not because voter outreach improved. Not because messaging became properly refined or principles aligned. But because a candidate named Bill Clinton came along and changed everything.

And that's what it will take for Republicans—a candidate who can change everything. As Henry Barbour, a member of that committee studying ways to revive the party, put it: "The most important part of the campaign is [still] the candidate."

Ford O'Connell

About Ford O'Connell Republican Strategist and Political Analyst

Republican Party
Democratic Party
Obama, Barack
Romney, Mitt
Ryan, Paul

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