Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee put together a team of experts to pore over what lessons there were to learn from the GOP's electoral defeats in 2012. Together, they compiled what is officially termed the "Growth And Opportunity Project," but what has become colloquially known -- due to its thanatological study of the corpse of Mitt Romney's campaign -- as the "RNC autopsy." Call it what you like, the RNC insisted that it was "the most comprehensive post-election review" ever undertaken, and at 100 pages, we're not inclined to quibble.
Over the course of those 100 pages, the report’s authors offered up a number of urgent “bottom line” thoughts on the state of the party after 2012. One of the most firmly stated admonitions cautioned against insular thinking: “The Republican Party has to stop talking to itself.”
Indeed, that’s solid advice for anyone who’s been long trapped in the bubble of “This Town.” But the question, one year on from the publication of this report, is whether or not the Republican Party has started listening to its own advice.
Those who produced the after-action report definitely took a soup-to-nuts approach, devoting their energies to matters both philosophical and practical. The RNC got deep into the weeds on how to operate better in the modern campaign finance environment, took on the tremendous deficits the party endured in terms of campaign technology, and made a critical dissection of the party's entire primary process. There was also tremendous emphasis on reaching out to demographic groups that have lately found it all too easy to spurn the GOP's advances.
Now that we've reached the end of the first post-autopsy year, however, it may be worth it to take a look back and see how the Republican Party is doing, following the strictures set down in the "Growth And Opportunity Project." Let's just pull one especially urgent-sounding order out of the autopsy, totally at random, shall we?
As stated above, we are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.
Oh, hey, whoops, I guess?
Here's a fun fact: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was, at one point, thought of as a top prospect for a 2016 run. The RNC autopsy, in fact, quotes him as a wise elder high up in the report: “What people who are struggling want more than anything is a chance -- a chance to make it in life.” After a year of suiting up in a flak jacket to confront right-wing radio talkers who opposed Rubio and his "Gang Of Eight" on immigration reform, it's Rubio whose chances are diminished. Remember how Texas Gov. Rick Perry made an impassioned case for treating immigrants humanely, based on years of practical experience as a border state governor, only to get repeatedly kicked in the teeth for it? History repeats itself.
As we come to the end of the year, the future of comprehensive immigration reform looks as uncertain as ever. House Republican leadership continues to sit on the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate, and while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is suggesting that House Speaker John Boehner is close to caving, all the chit-chat out of Boehner's camp is indicating that he'll likely stand pat against anything other than a piecemeal approach. Meanwhile, this year's thorn in Boehner's side, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is urging his fellow Republicans to block any immigration reform efforts.
Cruz, who's criticized his fellow Republicans for training "cannon fire" at one another even as he's kept his own howitzers warm, has been a one-man wrecking ball against the efforts of the RNC's "Growth And Opportunity Project." Even as he's served as the vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he's raised the profile of the Senate Conservatives Fund and used that perch to harangue his colleagues for what he's perceived as a lack of purity. He hasn't even endorsed Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the head of the NRSC, who's facing a primary in Cruz's home state!
This isn't what the RNC wanted after 2012. The "Growth And Opportunity" report goes on at great length about the need for the RNC and its "Friends And Allies" (by which the report means right-aligned third-party groups) to forge a more positive working alliance. "The RNC is the only entity that can effectively lead on issues and messaging," says the report.
Those "Friends And Allies" didn't get the message. All year, outside groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth have laid down their own law in terms of messaging, leading the GOP into one morass after another. Things finally came to a head in mid-December, when Boehner -- hoping to shepherd through the budget deal wrought by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D) -- finally hit the roof.
It's hard to fault Boehner for his reaction. As HuffPost's Sabrina Siddiqui reported, "Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity stated their opposition to the Murray-Ryan budget deal before it was even announced, while Club for Growth urged members to vote against it moments after the deal was made public." That flew in the face of one of the RNC's big recommendations: "Republican organizations need to understand that all of this will work better if they will all participate in these discussions and play their respective roles." At the end of 2013, it's pretty clear that this spirit of participation and discussion has failed to take root.
Of course, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the GOP hasn't made some not-insubstantial progress in righting the ship. As CNN's Peter Hamby reported, the RNC has an entirely new vision for the primary process that includes fewer debates, a more tightly disciplined state primary process and an early convention to help save its future presidential candidate from operating at a financial disadvantage. After the wretched excesses of the 2012 primaries, these are reforms worth welcoming. Though the law of unintended consequences still applies: Will the new process limit the effectiveness of grassroots-driven campaigns like the one Ron Paul ran in 2012? Will there still be enough debates for a low-budget candidate, like Rick Santorum, to have a puncher's chance at the nomination?
And when a nominee is crowned, will the candidate benefit from cutting-edge campaign mechanics? That was one of the RNC's under-sung goals in developing this post-2012 plan -- the need to build a smarter, data-driven, reality-based campaign with top-flight digital infrastructure. Around the same time the RNC was putting its report together, The New York Times' Robert Draper was making the rounds of disaffected GOP campaign technologists and pointing out how downright surreal it was to ponder the sort of talent that the Republican Party left on the sidelines in 2012.
How is the progress on that front? As Real Clear Politics' Adam O'Neal reported last week, progress is being made, but the GOP is still essentially "playing catch-up." The lag was especially prominent in this year's Virginia gubernatorial race:
DNC spokesman Mike Czin told RealClearPolitics that though he has “no doubt that Republicans are making investments and really spending time trying to figure out how to do this,” they are still lagging behind.
Czin pointed to the Virginia gubernatorial race as proof that GOP investments in this effort have not yet paid off. A few weeks before the election, Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign sent out an e-mail asking those interested in volunteering to reach out again because “sometimes things fall through the cracks.”
“That tells me that whatever investments they’re making weren’t being used by the biggest targeted, competitive race of the year,” Czin said of the contest won by Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Of course, the race for Virginia's statehouse cast more of the problems cited in the GOP autopsy in sharp relief. After all, the Republicans ended up with a pair of radical weirdos -- Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and conservative pastor E.W. Jackson -- on the top of their ticket. Both of those guys became the GOP's standardbearers in Virginia as a result of the state party's decision to make their nominations at a state convention instead of through a primary -- something that the autopsy specifically warned against: "It would be a mistake to circumvent voters and hand-pick our nominees ... voters when given choices will pick better candidates."
If we can linger a little longer in the Commonwealth of Virginia and on its governor's race, which the GOP surmised was an eminently winnable thing given the quality of the Democratic candidate, you can see multiple examples of urgings from the autopsy that went unheeded:
Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays -- and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.
Women are not a “coalition.” They represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections.
So yeah, maybe the fact that the Republicans' high-profile candidate in Virginia championed transvaginal ultrasounds and the criminalization of sodomy should be seen as something of a setback.
Efforts are being made to improve the GOP's standing with a lot of demographic groups that have shunned Republicans of late. We've learned, for example, that aides to GOP incumbents are getting trained on how to speak to women. It's not clear that this necessarily involves eliminating from their collective unconsciousness the sort of weird beliefs that caused Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's Senate ambitions to founder or just becoming savvy enough to never enunciate those beliefs out loud, but it is, one supposes, a start.
Or if you prefer, a start among fits. After all, it was the RNC that declared racism to be over in a tweet commemorating Rosa Parks this year, despite the autopsy's admonition that the Republican Party needed to do more to engage with the African-American community in a manner that spoke to a "mutual respect." It would also help if the GOP would curtail some of its more flamboyant efforts to keep the African-American community from voting. A lonely Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner might lead the way on that, if his party would let him.
The RNC's report also rather forcefully called for a populist retrenchment: "We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years." One might scoff at that a little louder were it not for the fact that well-heeled Democratic groups like Third Way have lately urged their party to kick the middle class to the curb.
Overall, these Republican outreach efforts remain a work in progress, and the ironic thing is that 2014's political realities may leave it so for the near future. After all, as dire as this report was in characterizing the deficits that undercut the GOP's 2012 efforts, the Republicans are nevertheless in healthy shape, fundamentally speaking, going into the 2014 midterms. Post-Census redistricting and the tendency of Democratic voters to congeal in large populations in urban districts, combined with the Democratic Party's traditional troubles in turning out the vote in midterm elections, make the possibility of a "wave" election that would undo right-wing hegemony in the House of Representatives extremely remote, and it will take a substantial effort just for the Democrats to maintain a slim majority in the Senate.
As the Democrats' 2014 message starts to take shape, it's hard to see anything in the offing that might catalyze a shift in these fundamentals. Right now, the White House and its Democratic allies are banking on Obamacare functioning as planned come the fall of 2014. It's an open question whether or not it will, but at this point, they're all-in on their Obamacare wagers. Should they pay off, Democrats will look back at 2013 -- the bungled rollout, President Barack Obama's poll numbers -- as simply "paying the cost to be the boss."
Elsewhere, Democrats are whistling about an approaching dawn in America's economic conditions, in the hopes that they might get credit for something that ends up feeling, authentically, like being out of the woods. It's something to hope for, but as they say, hope is not a plan. If you cast your mind back to the last time anyone spoke of a "Recovery Summer," it was ahead of the 2010 midterms. How did those work out again?
All of which is to say that, for the moment, the Republican Party doesn't even need to heed the recommendations of the RNC report. As noted above, Ted Cruz is essentially characterizing the effort to mitigate the problems of 2012 as something that would squander the tremendous opportunities the GOP might reap next year.
The question, of course, is whether or not running the sort of ideological campaign that Cruz might prefer in the midterms would make it harder to win in 2016, when the fundamentals of the Electoral College arguably flip in favor of the Democrats. One of the costs of tea party domination in 2010 was that by the time the presidential cycle had rolled around again, the GOP's brand was so far to the right that many of the party's most talented candidates stayed out of the game, rather than get mixed up in their party's extravagant extremes. That's a factor that the RNC did fail to grapple with in its "autopsy." It remains the largest potential reason that Republicans may have cause to pen another one. Which won't need to be heeded either.
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]