Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana kicked up a lot of dust at the Republican National Committee meeting this past week in Charlotte. He told the party faithful that it had to "stop being the stupid party" and had to "start talking like adults". Let's call that good advice as was his admonition that the party needed to go beyond fiscal issues and needed to explain its principles beyond short sound bites. The GOP also heard warnings from its highest ranking leader, Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who said to his caucus that they had to carefully pick their fights because the American people are getting impatient with-all-fighting-all-the-time and no action on the people's business.
There is an old saying: if you kick a mastodon in the ass, twenty minutes later it will say ouch. (Sadly, no mastodon has been around for a while to confirm the accuracy of this).
Jindal and Boehner spoke from the heart but both are still missing an important point. In many ways the GOP has become the party of the past, the last gasp of a traditional white and male America, and lacks a message that appeals to the burgeoning demographics of America's new majority - Hispanics, African Americans, voters born after 1979, and the creative class. And, while it is dominated by those who steadfastly believe in small government, what is the best role for government during an economic crisis and how does government do the good things that people want and need to have done?
That is the tall order. Jindal is right about the party explaining its principles more clearly but what if those principles do not have broad enough appeal? Back to those burgeoning demographics. In past elections, approximately 40% of Hispanics voters would identify themselves as "conservative". We know that both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush received about that level of support among this key voting group. But in a post-election Zogby Poll, only 22% of Hispanic voters on this past November called themselves conservative, suggesting that both the Republican brand and the conservative label had been badly tarnished. Young voters were disillusioned with President Barack Obama but it was the GOP's "principles" that turned them off - especially younger women worried about terrifying redefinitions of rape, conception, and contraception. (71% of young women voted for Mr. Obama). It is one thing for a party to repudiate candidates after they have lost an election, but the GOP standard-bearer in 2012 never said a word during the campaign.
The GOP, in short, has a "principles problem". Can it continue to house economic/fiscal libertarians under the same tent with those who are invasive toward personal freedoms for young (and not so young) women? Can it be "pro-family" and provide a forum for gays who want to build families? Can it have loud voices who want to shut the door to legal and illegal immigrants and then turn around to Hispanics and Muslims and appeal to their inner free market souls? Can it continue its purge of moderates (i.e. those Republicans who talk to Democrats), and still enable hardliners with little or no appeal in a general election? And can it do business in Congress? In our poll this past week, we asked voters what the more preferable action should be among congressional Republicans. Overall, by a factor of 48% to 30%, voters said that the GOP should work with the President and Democrats to enable the President's agenda. This included 76%-9% among Democrats, 47%-24% among independents, but only 15%-61% among Republicans. But 24% of Republicans were not sure.
Speaker Boehner made a wise move calling for an agreement to raise the debt ceiling for three months and demanding serious discussions about budget cuts. But I suspect that the party is going to have to get more on board with the President's version of a growth agenda to convince voters that is can work together with a leader that most party members despise.
But while Governor Jindal sounded an ominous warning about how his party must conduct itself in the national debate, he offered no recommendations about what their positions should be on the key issues of the day. If the party is move beyond its bedrock support in the South, increase its numbers of elected officials in the Northeast and Midwest, have a shot at increasing its share among growing demographic groups, and regain its status as a problem solver, it is going to have to review its "principles" and redefine what it means to be a conservative-centrist party in the 21st Century.
Governor Jindal made a good start but now more GOP leaders and activists are going to have say ouch.