Politics & Government

In wake of defeat, Republican leaders rethink message

WASHINGTON — Another brutal election night convinced Republicans that their party needs to change, and change fast.

Now, Republican leaders and activists across the country must agree on change they can believe in.

That won't be easy.

Within hours of election returns that expanded Democratic congressional majorities and delivered a historic presidential victory to Barack Obama, Republicans began searching for a new way forward.

Just as quickly, a split emerged between Republican loyalists advocating a purer form of conservative ideology and those urging a less-dogmatic flexibility.

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the head of the most conservative faction of Senate Republicans, said the Democratic election gains vindicated his hard-edged call for a return to the Reaganite roots of limited government and low taxes.

"We have got to clean up, reform and rebuild before we can ask the American people to trust us again," DeMint said. "This election reflects a failure of Republicans to keep their conservative promises."

DeMint derided the financial bailout package pushed by President Bush and passed by Congress last month as "a trillion-dollar bust." He urged Republicans to abandon "the Democrat-lite strategy of higher spending and bigger government."

Other Republicans, however, said the party must stop looking backward to Ronald Reagan, start closing the technology gap the Obama campaign exposed and broaden its appeal to younger and more diverse voters.

"Republicans need a retooled message for the 21st century and some new messengers to deliver it," said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist based in Alexandria, Va. "We need to be looking for how we can bring more people into the party rather than pushing them out."

Whichever direction Republicans choose, the Grand Old Party seems light-years away from Karl Rove's 2004 post-election boast that it was nearing "permanent majority-party" dominance.

Since then, the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006 and now have captured the White House while widening their margins in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

"It was a tsunami," Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said of Obama's sweeping win. "This is a time for us to look to ourselves and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and become the party of ideas again."

Colin Powell, who served as secretary of state under President Bush but endorsed Obama over Republican John McCain as Bush's successor, told CNN, "This is a time for deep introspection on the part of the Republican Party."

Ayres blamed the election losses on the pre-surge Iraq war failures two years ago and the economic collapse this fall, on top of the overriding public disapproval of Bush.

David Frum, a conservative columnist and former Reagan speechwriter, sees broader forces at work.

Republicans, Frum said, must move beyond their base of white, middle-aged men epitomized by Joe the Plumber, the Ohioan whom McCain made famous during his campaign.

"College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats, but that their values are under threat from Republicans," Frum wrote in a column for the Daily Telegraph of London. "There are more and more college-educated voters."

If GOP leaders want to pursue them, Frum said, "This will involve painful change on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. It will involve even more painful changes of style and tone — toward a future that is less overtly religious . . . and less polarizing on social issues."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who was elected to his second term Tuesday, said the noisy, Republican-led defeat of immigration revisions last year helped erase the gains that Bush had made among Hispanic voters.

Less than one-third of Latinos voted for McCain, down from the 44 percent share that Bush had in 2004. Hispanics helped Obama win Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and New Mexico — all states that Bush had carried.

"Our brand label with Hispanics is way down," Graham said. "It's one thing to reform a broken (immigration) system. It's another thing to single out one group in a way that they feel threatened."

Bill Greener, a Republican consultant from Alexandria, said that Obama had targeted younger voters via text-messaging and cutting-edge online communications.

Obama also took advantage of the growing number of states that allow pre-Election Day voting, Greener said.

"We are getting crushed in early voting and the efficient use of technology," he said. "It's a huge deal when the other side is text-messaging to cell phones while our side is hoping we've got a good e-mail list."

The Republican National Committee announced plans to launch an online initiative called "Republican for a Reason" to seek grass-roots input.

The initiative, committee chairman Mike Duncan said, will enable GOP activists "to tell us why they're Republican . . . how we may have let them down in recent years and what we can do to restore their confidence in our party."

David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said Republicans shouldn't minimize the scope of Obama's victory.

If GOP leaders don't respond well, the 2008 election could herald a lasting generational change in American politics.

"It looks like to me it's pretty deep, and it's pretty abiding," Woodard said. "You've got this real charismatic candidate (in Obama) who can build a viable coalition for a decade or more if he does it right. It's a pretty steep mountain for Republicans to climb."


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