Last week in mid-March, the Republican National Committee released the results of a much-needed introspection commissioned by RNC Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in December. The sunnily-titled "Growth and Opportunity Project" reported that the party suffers from an image problem. The report is very candid and, I think, accurate, with passages like this bit of comic gold:
"Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us."
You have to appreciate the stab at the saccharine closing one-liner, which looks like a Hallmark card for "So you didn't win an election."
The report is honest, though, and the RNC deserves kudos for bravely looking inward and seeing a bunch of "'scary,' 'narrow minded, and 'out of touch' … 'stuffy old men.'" That may a little harsh, actually, but it's good that they're hearing it.
Reliably, both sides of the commentariat rushed to interpret the report. And both to the right and left of the RNC, they got it wrong.
The Tea Party, of course, claimed that the electoral woes were the result of milquetoast conservatives peddling watered-down ideology. "Americans and those in the Tea Party movement don't need an 'autopsy' report from the RNC to know they failed to promote our principles, and lost because of it," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. Also blasted into the light of day were proposals tucked into the back of the report calling for a reduction of the primary process, which populists were quick to condemn as an establishment power grab.
The left offered their own cutting analysis: Republicans lost because they had a Republican platform. The New York Times diagnosed the RNC's problems as their "goals of shrinking government and lowering taxes," which, of course, are why a Republican party exists. According to Ross Douthat, "If there's a bigger base waiting to be built … A GOP that moves to the center on social and economic issues simultaneously might achieve that kind of expansion." Douthat means 'center' not as the area on the political spectrum between the two parties, but 'center' as in where every self-absorbed person is tempted to place themselves and their consummately reasonable views.
In being attacked from the left and the right, the RNC forms a new kind of center. What separates them from their populist fringe, really, is pragmatism: party elites like House Majority Leader Sen. John Boehner and Sen. John McCain still subscribe to an old, country-club style of conservatism that takes its cues from the boardroom instead of the mom-and-pop shop. They seek out bipartisan compromises and are not ideologically rigid. This is what wins elections.
The Tea Party can fulminate all it wants, but if they think that lassoing the Republican Party even further toward them will attract more voters, they don't understand how the game is played. Of course they want a more conservative Republican Party, but it takes a stunning lack of self-awareness to assume that everyone else does too. It betrays the naïveté that still plagues the Tea Party for them not to understand that the whole aim of electoral politics is to deliver what people with different political views want, as well as your own.
The establishment left, meanwhile, is similarly mistaken if it thinks that adopting liberal policies is the solution to their conservative counterpart's problems. Either that, or this isn't serious commentary; they're just chortling over a bested rival. Let's go with that.
I believe this is a better analysis than either: the RNC's report was an honest enough appraisal that it portrayed reality, and there's nothing that reflects preexisting opinions back to dedicated partisans like reality. So continues the struggle.