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Race and Beyond: Fixing the GOP

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH)

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at his Capitol office in Washington, Wednesday, February 13, 2013.

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I suspect that those who need to hear it most are unlikely to read—or heed—what I’m about to say. After poring through all 100 pages of the Republican National Committee’s soul-searching report released yesterday, the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” I feel compelled to offer the party faithful some advice.

Yeah, I know that I’m not the sort of person whose ideas are typically associated with a group that would nominate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for president. But, hey, I’m an American. I want to see a revitalized Republican Party because it’s good for the country to have at least two strong political forces battling in the marketplace of policy.

By all appearances, the GOP is careening out of control. I fear that the party’s center won’t—or can’t—hold its extremist wing from sending the entire enterprise over the abyss. How can it remain relevant by seeking guidance from the likes of Donald “You’re Fired” Trump, Sarah “Big Gulp” Palin, and Clint “I’m Talking to a Chair” Eastwood? Much more of this, and there won’t be a party of Lincoln in the near future.

That’s the part that nudges me into civil duty, to warn Republican leaders that they’re teetering perilously on the same precipice as their forbearers, the Whigs. History buffs will recall that the Whig Party disintegrated over issues of diversity of its day. Back in the 1820s and 1830s, slaves were the other Americans, unspoken as such but a fearful contradiction to the American ideal. The Whigs fought among themselves over slavery, failing to recognize or accommodate the social and demographic forces at play in the decades leading up to the Civil War. There’s nothing good about the Republican Party going the way of the Whigs, a party that died because it refused to shift in the winds of change blowing across the nation.

To be sure, signs of the impending GOP apocalypse appeared at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. I’ll have more to say about that in a minute, but for the moment, suffice it to know that I feel it is my patriotic duty to offer some advice to those Republicans who sincerely seek to improve their standing among the diverse groups of Americans. Whether they embrace it—well, let the record show that I warned them about the Whigs.

So without further ado, here are three quick ideas to help chart a new course for the Republican Party.

It’s not about messages, it’s about policy

Almost immediately after Gov. Romney lost to President Barack Obama, GOP strategists claimed that their woes were a failure of communication, not ideas. Wrong! A mistaken message is like, well, to steal a once-popular GOP talking point, “putting lipstick on a pig.”

Yet this foolish notion persists, even as a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that just 26 percent of the public approves of Republicans and their policies, compared to 44 percent who approve of Democrats and their policies. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll also showed a 20-point net negative rating for Speaker of the House John Boehner’s (R-OH) handling of the fiscal cliff negotiations with the White House. That poll showed 31 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving of his approach. Meanwhile, a majority of the respondents—52 percent—approved of President Obama’s efforts, while 37 percent disapproved.

But those facts and numbers didn’t stop Speaker Boehner from defending the party’s political stances last weekend on ABC’s “This Week,” saying that whatever is wrong can be fixed with a clearer public relations campaign. “There’s nothing wrong with the principles of our party,” he said. “But Republicans have not done as an effective job as we should in terms of talking about our principles in terms that average people can appreciate.”

If Republicans are to regain their footing with the broadest segments of the electorate, moderation in policies affecting women, immigrants, gays, and racial minorities must be demonstratively shown—not just expressed in talking points.

But messengers do matter, so avoid the crazy

A panel discussion at last week’s CPAC gathering in suburban Maryland, just outside of the Washington Beltway, seemed tailor made for softening racial concerns about the GOP’s adherence to racism. But it went awry, badly awry—so awry that it confirmed some of the party’s worst fears.

KCarl Smith, an author and conservative activist with the Frederick Douglass Republicans, led the ill-fated discussion that was self-evidently titled “The Race Card: Are You Sick And Tired Of Being Called A Racist When You’re Not One?”

As first reported by ThinkProgress’s Scott Keyes and Zack Beauchamp, Scott Terry, a 30-year-old audience member from North Carolina, challenged Smith during his presentation, defending slavery as good for African-Americans because it provided food and shelter for them. Keyes and Beauchamp’s blog post went viral, spreading like crazy through the political blogosphere. Ultimately, a reported description in The Washington Post called it “the most awkward CPAC panel ever.”

No matter what the message is or how well it’s crafted, when crazy talk disrupts serious political gatherings, only chaos can follow. For outsiders such as me, looking in on such a ridiculous display proves why the party must get a grip on the fringe element that ruins its name and reputation.

Latino voters understand that votes speak louder than English promises

It’s great that Republican leaders are coming around to embrace comprehensive immigration reform. Better late than never.

At yesterday’s release of the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said, “When Republicans lost in November, it was a wakeup call” that the party must do more to reach out to minority voters, especially in fast-growing Latino communities. More bluntly, the report itself states: “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink.”

To that goal, the RNC report announced plans to spend $10 million to send hundreds of paid activists into Latino, black, and Asian American communities by the end of the coming summer. It’s an ambitious endeavor, and one that is destined to fail if it isn’t backed up with substance.

If Republicans expect to win over Latino voters, they must demonstrate a commitment that’s greater than a one-time vote or paying millions of dollars to ambassadors carrying shop-worn messages into barrios or the ’hood.

If you’ve read this far, then I’m taking it as sign that you’re open to radical and fundamental changes. Oh, there’s no need to pay me. My thanks will come with a changed GOP and a competitive two-party system.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here