Shattered Dreams and Dashed Hopes: The RNC’s Charlotte Summit

So much hope was alive mere days and weeks ago. So much possibility. A low thrum of murmuring was audible up and down the corridors and streetcorners of Washington, DC, the quiet voices of people hinting, proposing, suggesting, that the GOP…no, no, not yet. It might be scared away. Shadowed figures whispered in dark corners, “Could it be?” “Yes, it could.” “Maybe, just maybe.” The echoing clap of shoes moving in an empty parking garage; trenchcoat-ed forms, and tinted windows moving briskly through the street. Anything too loud and the possibility might be scared away – it was hard enough to believe it could be real these days. Secret meetings and backchannel reconnaissance. Penthouse suites and smoke-filled back rooms. Could the GOP have really learned something from the drubbing they took in 2012? Could they be preparing to make – gulp! – changes? Maybe, it seemed, just maybe. Yeah, we all enjoyed our trip to Crazytown, but now it’s time to re-pack the station wagon, load up the kids, and drive back to Reality, USA. It could be happening! There was so much hope! I was so (cautiously) optimistic!

And then this happened…

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Republican Party honchos who huddled here for their first big gathering since the election devoted lots of time talking about the need to welcome Latinos and women, close the technology gap with Democrats and stop the self-destructive talk about rape.

But the party’s main problem, dozens of Republican National Committee members argued in interviews over three days this week, is who delivers its message and how, not the message itself. Overwhelmingly they insisted that substantive policy changes aren’t the answer to last year’s losses.

No, of course not. Just the message. It’s just an image problem, that’s all. Nothing wrong at all with any of our backwards-ass, regressive, and puritanical policies, or any of the voter-alienating Attila-the-hun candidates we’ve been running. Just give ’em a good spit-shine and we’re good to go!

Moderation, at least at this stage, is no virtue at the RNC.

Hell, virtues aren’t a virtue at the RNC.

“It’s not the platform of the party that’s the issue,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said Friday after being easily reelected to a second, two-year term. “In many cases, it’s how we communicate about it. It is a couple dumb things that people have said.”

In all seriousness, if this is what he actually thinks, this is scary. This is kool-aid-drinking self-delusion at its finest and most complete. I’m assuming, however, that it’s actually an attempt to downplay the problem, a ploy to make them look not as out-of-control. But the thing is, if you’re on a plane that’s going down, and that plane just lost its first engine and second wing, and there’s a big gaping whole in the side that people are being sucked out of to certain death, and you’re clinging for dear life to a seat-back as your legs are pulled towards the opening, and your hair is on fire, and if at that moment you calmly say, “well this is not a good day,” with no hint of irony, you begin to look unavoidably psychotic, and people will start backing away from you slowly.

“We don’t need a new pair of shoes; we just need to shine our shoes,” said West Virginia national committeewoman Melody Potter.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told a luncheon crowd that the GOP is at “a turning point” and needs “real change.”

Then he clarified: “It’s not about ideology…The people on the left are the people on the left, and they ask us to come to them – which is absurd…Obama’s a hard core left-winger. I want him to compromise with us on our terms.”

Yes, you do need new shoes. In fact, you need a whole new style of footwear. Maybe trade in the cowboy boots for something more practical, like some cross-trainers. And no one’s telling Newt to change the entire ideology of the party, nor is anyone expecting the GOP to be anything but most difficult in dealing with the president. But if we could start by just lopping off the furthest-rightward lump of crazies, the whole party would center and align itself almost automatically. If I may use another analogy, it’s like when you make a right turn in your car, and once you’ve completed the turn, sometimes you let go of the steering wheel for a second, and by accelerating forward the wheel spins back and the car straightens itself out naturally – it’s kind of like that.

A big focus of the four-day session, which wraps up Saturday, was adopting a more positive attitude – and smiling! – when interacting with voters and reporters. New Hampshire chairman Wayne MacDonald said party leadings need to work on “not being sour-pusses on television or the radio” – that there is a way to be firm and assertive without being mean-spirited.

“Nobody is saying the Republican Party has to change our beliefs in any of our platform planks,” he said. “This party wants to serve everybody that believes in our principles.”

I would love to say I got that from the Onion, or a spoof on The Daily Show, because that paragraph is so tailor-made for satire that I feel disingenuous repeating it, even though it is quoted verbatim. A four-day closed-door strategy session comprising 168 leaders of the Republican party yielded, as one of its main talking points – it came about two-thirds into the first of three pages, and if there’s one thing we know it’s that Politico has not figured out how to shrug off the yoke of the reverse-pyramid style of journalism – “smiling” more as one of the better ideas. I don’t know much, but when Republicans lost eight House seats, two Senate seats, seven out of eleven governorships, and the presidency – among many others – in November of 2012, I don’t think it was because they were “being sour-pusses on television or the radio.” Rush Limbaugh isn’t despised because he is a “sour-puss.” Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock weren’t soundly dismissed, repudiated, and defeated because they were “sour-pusses.” The Republican Party’s problem is not just one of image – or “optics,” the as the buzzword is now – but of a shift toward an alienating extremism, precipitated by the level-headed members of the party allowing the backlash against Obama to become a super-conservative movement of its own and for its own sake, and allowing them affiliation and influence, and by pragmatic conservatism relinquishing ground in favor of extremist obstinance. The image problems are indeed a problem, but they are a symptom, not a cause.

Behind closed doors, party bigwigs discussed “strategic partnerships” with blacks, Asians, Hispanics and women. There was talk about developing a “comfort factor” so that minorities feel they are part of the process.

“Actually our principles are more conducive to minorities than the Democrats,” said Holland L. Redfield II, the Virgin Island’s national committeeman.

Good luck getting anyone to believe that. Minorities can detect self-serving vote-grabbing bullshit just as well as anyone else – maybe even better, since they have to put up with so much of it.

Most GOP leaders recognize that real policy innovation – and recalibration – will come not from the RNC but from the 30 Republican governors, many of whom face tough reelections in 2014.

Newly-elected North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a rising GOP star, believes the party must reorient itself away from Washington and focus on experimenting with new policy approaches in the states.

“Sometimes I turn on the Sunday talk shows and I go, ‘These people have no idea what’s happening out there,’” he said in an extended interview. “It’s all the same eight people on the talk shows, and they don’t get outside the Beltway themselves…They’re all talking to themselves: the pundits, the Republicans, the Democrats.”

“We as Republicans need to develop a farm system in recruiting new talent for the future,” he added. “Part of my job as a 56-year-old governor is to start identifying the 35-year-olds and get them experience, whether it comes from the public sector or the private sector.”

So there is still hope, in the form of the increasingly powerful coalition of Republican governors. They would be much better suited to bring about a fundamental change in the GOP than Congress anyway – bottom-up instead of top-down, plus the spectrum of belief is much greater and wider-ranging amongst the conservative governors than it is in the Washington echo-chamber of Congress, whose members feed off each others’ conservatism. The governors are more likely to hold different, more radical ideologies, and maybe propose them. I just hope Congress doesn’t use this “meeting” to make it look like they actually did something, or make it seem like they took seriously what the voters have been trying to tell them – and I really hope they don’t believe that themselves. It was essentially an empty gesture, and only re-established their obstinance for the moment. Even after such a startling defeat – which most of them admit was so – the GOP never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

No matter how much you polish a piece of crap, the best you can get is a shiny piece of crap.

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