"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.
The Republican Party is trying to rejuvenate itself, much like the Democrats did a generation ago when they experienced great difficulty connecting with Middle America and were thrown out of the White House.
This was the Republican era of Ronald Reagan, who served eight years as president starting in 1981 and then was followed in office by his vice president, George H.W. Bush. During that 12-year period, the Democrats realized they were doing something very wrong, and they started to pay more attention to their centrists instead of letting the liberals hold sway. That kind of rethinking is going on in the GOP today, with the focus on whether Republicans have moved too far to the right and have become too obstructionist.
Some Republicans are trying to lead a full-fledged conservative revival through the use of tough love. Among those at the forefront is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who told GOP activists last week that the Republicans should stop being the "stupid party" and emphasize economic growth rather than austerity or divisive social issues.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee last year and a possible contender for president in 2016, told the National Review Institute, a conservative group, that Republicans should remain true to their principles but need to do a better job explaining their ideas. "We can't get rattled [by President Obama's re-election]," said Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee. "We won't play the villain in his morality plays. We have to stay united. We have to show that, if given the chance, we can govern."
Reince Priebus, newly re-elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "It's not the platform of the party that's the issue. In many cases, it's how we communicate about it."
Another conservative trying to rebuild the party is former senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the new president of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. He argues that the conservative problem is one of bad public relations, not a flaw in policies or a dearth of ideas.
DeMint goes further than many other conservatives saying that Americans of the right have learned from recent election setbacks, including the re-election of Obama, that they can no longer trust the Republican Party to carry their message.
Conservative strategist Bill Kristol, former White House chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle during George H.W. Bush's presidency, is considering the creation of a policy and research center to update the GOP's message. Some compare it to the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist organization Bill Clinton once headed that helped shift the party to the middle. But Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, appears to have no interest in moving the party to the center, preferring to find ways to make conservatism more appealing.
Although the hard-line conservatives are getting most of the attention, some moderates are trying to make their presence felt. Former secretary of state Colin Powell, who is also former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticizes "a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party" and Republicans who "still sort of look down on minorities." Powell is African-American and, even though he is a Republican, he endorsed Obama for the White House in both 2008 and 2012.
But Democrats realize that they succeeded in making their way back to power by moving to the center. And this led to the rise of Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in 1992 and broke the Republican hold on the White House. He did it by avoiding ideological stubbornness and zealotry. Many Republicans today see Obama's re-election in November as a wake-up call signaling that the nation is changing demographically and politically, and the GOP needs to adjust.
They're right, experts say. Forty-nine percent of Americans hold a negative view of the Republican Party, its worst negative rating since 2008, and only 26 percent have a positive view, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll. In contrast, only 38 percent hold a negative view of the Democratic Party, and 44 percent hold a positive view. Obama does relatively well, with 52 percent approving of his job performance.
Revival will be a long process, but experts say it's probably a necessary one if the Republicans are to remain a viable national party over the long run.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.