WASHINGTON -- Al From, the engineer of the Democratic Party's rebirth after Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, at first seems an unlikely adviser to the modern Republican Party.
But the parallels are obvious: The Democratic Party, too, was stuck in Loserville during the 1980s. Eight years before Bill Clinton won the White House back for the Democrats, From created the movement that helped him do it by forming the Democratic Leadership Council, which pushed the Democrats toward more centrist policies and rhetoric. Now 70, From has written a book about how he did it: The New Democrats and the Return to Power.
From was adamant, when we spoke, that the GOP's revival begins with ideas. A presidential candidate will come behind the agenda that gets results, he said. The attention deficit disorder of modern politics, and the chaos of the GOP's internal politics, can be conquered if someone does the hard work to think through how to translate conservative principles for the modern age, he said.
All the "clutter" and noise, he said, "makes organizations that set a clear direction and have a clear vision, sense of purpose, and agenda even more important. It you don't have a sense of direction and of purpose, you will be overwhelmed by the present."
But is such a comeback even possible in today's politics?
The idea of anyone, or any group, steering the modern Republican party in any direction sounds like a fool's errand. The party's grassroots is a prison riot on steroids. The cultural spirit of the age is, "Don't tell me what to do." Technology allows multitudinous political tribes and factions to swarm around anything that smells like the establishment or top-down manipulation and kill it in its infancy. Right-wing opinions form instantly in response to events on right-wing websites like RedState or Breitbart and are disseminated by email, Twitter, Facebook and social media.
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff recently described "the world of 'present shock,' where everything is happening so fast that it may as well be simultaneous."
"One big now. The result for institutions -- especially political ones -- has been profound," Rushkoff wrote. "This transformation has dramatically degraded the ability of political operatives to set long-term plans ... The extreme present is not an environment conducive to building lasting movements."
When I mention this to From, he just smiles, and says, "You have to be smart about it."
But many of the Republicans I spoke to at first shared my skepticism of replicating a DLC-type effort for today's GOP.
"[It] would be nice in some drug-induced, fifth-dimension world that folks in D.C. and NYC might live in, but it's not going to happen," said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based political consultant who helped run Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) presidential campaign.
There was some confusion over what a Republican DLC would even do in the first place. Would it simply try to make the GOP more moderate?
"Why would anyone want to steer the GOP to the center? Have you been reading Screwtape Letters?" said Mary Matalin, a veteran communicator of the Bush administration, referencing C.S. Lewis' satirical take on how the devil instructs his minions to deceive mankind.
Would it take on right-wing candidates in primary elections to avoid losing general elections, duplicating and perhaps undermining an effort that's already happening?
Groups like American Crossroads said a year ago that they will fight primary challengers they considerable unelectable. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending $50 million this year to do the same. And Republican leaders in both the Senate and the House have been more vocal in challenging outside conservative groups who are financing candidates to run against GOP incumbents. Senate Minority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is himself the target of a primary challenge from Kentucky businessman Matt Bevins, who has the backing of a few different tea party insurgent groups.
"Folks are finally fighting the folks who would forever turn the GOP into a minority party," said Henry Barbour, a Republican consultant in Mississippi working on Sen. Thad Cochran's Republican primary against a tea party challenger.
However, those are still rear-guard actions that don't resolve the GOP's identity crisis. And furthermore, the GOP is just as likely to have a good midterm cycle by talking about how much they oppose Obamacare -- which could instead reinforce all the wrong lessons going into the 2016 presidential cycle. They could win back the Senate through just saying "no," making the grassroots more likely to get behind a candidate like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for president. During the '80s, Democrats saw two liberal candidates get smacked down consecutively: Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. Arguably as a result, the left wing got religion, and got on board with the centrists in the party.
In order for the grassroots to realize that the GOP's problem is not purity, "We may need that kind of a rebuke," one Republican operative said, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly about inter-party tensions.
So would a DLC-type group try to get conservatives to cohere around a platform of sorts? That was the heart of what the DLC did, really. From writes in his book that the GOP needs to "redefine conservatism in a way that both holds the conservatives and broadens the party's appeal to moderates."
Even here, conservatives are divided, said Ross Douthat, The New York Times columnist who is a big advocate of reforming conservatism.
"The intellectual wing of the right has coalesced around a set of ideas," Douthat said. "[But] what the wonks want … is 'centrist' in a very different way then the kind of 'moderate Republicanism' that you see from the GOP donor base."
"[The] 'reform conservatism' crowd is very focused on a kind of family-friendly, working-class-friendly agenda with its roots in social conservatism, that doesn't necessarily overlap with where the donor class wants the party to go," Douthat said.
One major schism on the right is over corporate welfare: government subsidies for major corporations. Reformers want to get rid of them, but many elected officials in both parties get lots of political donations from big business, and are wary of crossing their benefactors.
Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine, and one of the more influential thinkers on the right, said no group should try to direct the party's efforts to reform itself.
"This has to remain a decentralized effort, in part because conservatives aren't centralizers, and in part to avoid the impression that we are a faction fighting with other conservatives," Levin said.
So a DLC redux for Republicans would not necessarily make the party more liberal, it would likely be duplicative if it tried to fight the tea party in primaries and it would face enormous challenges in trying to wrangle together a policy consensus.
So, let's simplify things. Where the party goes on policy -- and the question of what it's for -- does have to be worked out. But From's goal when he founded the DLC was to win back the White House. So that's what any Republican effort would be about: winning a presidential election.
It took time for the Democrats. From began working on the values that would embody the DLC -- economic growth in the private sector, personal responsibility and citizenship as a form of patriotism -- in 1981.
"You can't convince me that ideas don't matter any more and that you're not ultimately in a stronger position if you have something smart to say than if you don't. No matter what you multiply by zero the answer is still zero," he wrote in an e-mail.
Some of what From describes is being done in the decentralized ideas incubator described by Levin and Douthat. But there is one other missing component. Policies and proposals are important. But so is a story. Snapchat-era politics requires more than propositions and arguments. A party needs a winning image, one that communicates attractive values and emotions to voters who are barely paying attention most of the time, or to any one thing. It gets through to them by reaching them through a thousand data points, all connecting back to an overarching master narrative.
No policy proposal is going to find its way into a critical mass of casual conversations between peers. However, a big idea about the two parties, told through a narrative, maybe could.
I recently caught my first sense of a Republican effort to do this with the new chairman of the College Republicans, Alex Smith. Smith, a 24-year-old Catholic University graduate, was giving something of a pitch on her organization, when something she said stood out. She called the Democrats the party of "old ideas." She compared liberal governance to a Model-T Ford factory line.
"Where have I heard this before?" I said.
"Probably from Alex Castellanos," she responded.
Castellanos, the 59-year-old political consultant, launched something a year ago called NewRepublican.org. It's easy to dismiss his effort as a vanity project. But the Cuban-born, cigar-smoking CNN talking head is crafting a way of talking about conservative ideas that matches them to today's rapidly changing world.
Castellanos gave a speech last October to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, in which he only half-jokingly lamented that the Republican Party has been so inept politically that many Americans think of it as “the pro-rape, anti-sex party.”
The point of Castellanos’ talk, however, was to ground Republican ideas in epistemology, the study of how we know and understand all of life essentially, and to translate conservative principles in a way that connects to a world that continues to evolve dramatically.
"There's a way of thinking there that is a product of a time. The world of Newton. The emergence of science. The Industrial Age," he said. "Imagine that you're there and Henry Ford is standing around with a bunch of guys, they're looking at a car, and old Henry says, 'Guys, I got an idea. We don't have to make these things one at a time.' Holy smokes. The world changed."
"What a great idea, the Industrial Age: top-down, producing uniformity, standardization. So what do you do if you have something that works like that, if that's your understanding of the world? ... The world is a clock. Cogs and gears. You can look at it, see it run, I understand it. I'll tweak it. I'll make it better," he continued. "So what do you do? You create a big old factory in Washington. And you start cranking out Model-T's. What a wonderful idea. Except for one thing. We don't live in that world anymore."
Castellanos stood behind a podium, clicking through a PowerPoint.
"What world are we moving into? We're entering a new era: ultra-responsive, hyper-connected, bottom-up, information age world. A world of complex systems and adaptive agents," he said. "It's an emergent structure. It's people self-organizing. It's a billion subtle and elegant transactions one to another."
Here he tried to connect the dots and close the deal.
"Today's world demands bottom-up responsive ways of meeting the challenges of an adaptive world. Good news for Republicans is, this is kind of what they've always believed," Castellanos said. "And look at how you can describe the old world and the new: top-down, inflexible, control, unchanging, standardized, slow ... There's a story here Republicans can tell."
Some will read this and think it's nothing more than verbal voodoo. But there's no question that it's more interesting than just a simple list of bullet points laying out the party's position on issues x, y and z. It has the potential to capture the imagination.
From's book about the 1980s is a tale of an influence campaign that in its day was cutting-edge, but which today is likely impossible. He went around the Washington establishment in Congress and the Democratic National Committee and did events and national tours to drum up media interest for the book, then he took supportive lawmakers on regional tours to try and attract local press coverage.
But what he was after was still establishment status and influence. The establishment is a currency that no longer holds the same value. "We created all these illusions of power," From told me.
That worked then. Something new is needed now. The Republicans need a coherent set of arguments. They need a new national face. But the only thing that could bring those two things together and move them forward is a new story.