The report that the Republican party issued this week dissecting its dismal performance in 2012 has garnered a lot of press. The general drift has been that the party knows it has to get more inclusive or else face an endless string of losses at the national level.
The report was widely seen as a much needed reality check and a direct challenge to the social conservative wing of the party. It even prompted speculation that shifting its opposition to gay marriage was an easy and low-risk move for Republicans to make to signal their new openness.
Don’t believe it.
First of all, let’s not over interpret what the report said about gay issues. In fact, it was a fairly brief part of the report, and it focused largely on opposition to gay rights as a barrier to recruiting younger voters. “For the GOP to appeal to younger voters, we do not have to agree on every issue, but we do need to make sure young people do not see the Party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view,” the report said. “Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.”
Besides the revealing use of “gateway,” which is generally used to describe drugs and not tolerance, what’s interesting about the passage is that it doesn’t actually say the party has to change policies. In fact, it explicitly leaves room for disagreement between younger voters and the party. It’s just that the party has to appear more tolerant. Just to be clear, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus quickly clarified that the party supports traditional marriage.
And that is the problem with the report. It doesn’t actually offer any new policies or ideas that might actual revitalize the party. In fact, most of the report is a paean to George W. Bush, who remains one of the most unpopular presidents ever. Emulating W is not the way to win the White House.
In fact, the report is the establishment’s revenge on the wingnuts who control the base. (Why else limit the number of presidential candidate debates and front-load primaries?) But the problem is that the establishment hasn’t been able to control the wingnuts and is dependent on them for turnout in primaries. Yes, the fringe may have to go, but it’s going to be a long, bloody fight. Unlike liberals who are unhappy with the Democrats’ self-conscious march to the center, the ultraconservatives are motivated by Biblical belief in the righteousness of their cause. In their black-and-white universe, there is very little room for compromise or just settling for the best you can get. It takes a politician of Ronald Reagan’s skill to navigate those shoals.
The Republican establishment wants to fast forward to 2016, when it will be a transformed party. But in the interim (and perhaps longer), it faces tremendous internal turmoil. Marriage equality may well be the marker for how the party changes or–perhaps more likely–doesn’t change.