GOP Looks to Re-Brand

Alexander Says Party Must Update Policies

Posted November 16, 2008 at 10:37am

As Republicans return to Washington today to begin putting their fractured party back together, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) warned that it will require significant changes to how the GOP views itself and how it speaks to the American public about its conservative values.

In an interview last week, Alexander argued that Republicans have failed to offer practical solutions to the problems facing Americans — and that it will take significant time and effort to put Republicans back on the winning track.

“Step one has already happened. We’ve been sent to the woodshed. The voters have thoroughly rejected [us] in the last two elections. They’ve clobbered us,” Alexander said. “It’s the same thing as being told by your parents or your school principal, ‘You go sit out in a room by yourself and think about what you’ve done until you come up with a better idea.’ And I think that’s what we should be doing.”

As Conference chairman, Alexander is responsible for shaping the GOP’s message on the Senate side. A similar message overhaul is going on in the House, which, like the Senate, suffered significant losses on Election Day. Senate leaders sound more determined than House leaders to appeal to moderates.

Alexander said much of the problem stems from internal struggles of rooting GOP policies in conservative principles while keeping up with changing times. Arguing that many of the solutions offered by Republicans are decades old, Alexander said the GOP can move forward only by ending its resistance to change.

“We have to decide whether we’re going to be content with being a debating society and just standing around debating our principles or whether we’re going to do what a governing political party is supposed to do and turn those principles into solutions that more than half the people can agree with. So I think that’s our job,” he said. “It’s perfectly possible for Republicans to offer solutions on electric bills and health insurance and terrorism and pocketbook issues and do it without sacrificing our conservative principles.”

But the Conference is smaller than it was a few years ago and is finding a consensus on policy approaches to be elusive.

“It’s always an issue whether you have 42 Senators or 49 Senators — every Senator is an independent person who usually demonstrates that from time to time, so getting consensus isn’t easy. But sometimes getting consensus is easier when you’re out of power and you’re more hungry. What we’re going to be doing in the Republican Conference is working together like we did last year on energy until we can come up with a common agenda that we can advance.

“I don’t expect that to pop out in January or February or March. But it will come. It will be easier to identify what we’re against like the union ballot change. … A part of being sent to the woodshed is that it’s going to be a little messy for a while,” he said.

As part of that process, Senate Republicans will hear Tuesday from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who headed up the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s when the GOP took control of the House and Senate. Barbour is expected to be the first of several Republicans and conservatives whom Alexander and other leaders will be bringing in to address the Conference over the next several months, aides said. One aide said lawmakers want to “bring in people who can contribute to the discussion” of the party’s future, noting that Barbour is a good choice because “he’s an adult in this business.”

The aide said that during the election, President-elect Barack Obama co-opted the GOP tax message. “It sounded like something we would have said but maybe said it a little bit differently. We need to sit down and look at our messaging,” the aide said.

But the aide agreed with Alexander that the process will take time, noting that the party needs to learn how to “talk to people who don’t have health insurance. It’s not so simple as saying we want you to have affordable health care,” adding, “We’re going to have to feel our way to that.”

House Republicans have a messy road ahead as well, with a revamped leadership team but widespread angst over the loss of more than 20 seats. Once they finalize their leadership team, Members and aides expect a lengthy period of soul-searching and party rebuilding even as they prepare to resist a liberal spending and regulatory agenda next year.

“There is no unanimity about where the party should go,” said one House GOP aide.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) will “try and find a way out of the wilderness,” the aide said, “but it’s going to take us a little while.”

“There’s not going to be one person who can just come in with a magic wand and say, ‘Here’s how we solve all the problems.’ … Everyone right now thinks they know best, and none of them agree.”

Several House Republicans and aides have also argued that the party needs to focus on more kitchen table solutions — as they did last year on oil drilling — and less on social issues that excite the party’s base.

For Boehner’s part, though he faces a challenge from Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), he had issued a defense of conservatism when he announced his effort to keep his post.

“We must redouble our efforts to develop forward-looking solutions to the challenges Americans face — solutions rooted in the enduring principles of reform that define us as a party,” Boehner said, arguing that the country was still a “center-right” country despite the electoral drubbing.