US Republicans are rebranding themselves in the wake of last year’s defeat, but the makeover is looking less like a genuine bid to woo women and minorities and more like a civil war within the party.
The party was hammered in the November election, with voters rejecting Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s harsh rhetoric on immigration, the poor and big government. Democrats retained the White House and gained seats in both the Senate and the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and demographics are against them. More than nine out of 10 blacks voted to re-elect President Barack Obama, as did 71 percent of Hispanics and a majority of women.
With their traditional base — white males — ceding ground to growing numbers of minorities, a consensus has emerged: the party must reform or risks marginalization.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s demand in a January speech for fellow Republicans to “stop being the stupid party” became the tough love heard round the political world and kicked off the reinvention.
“The Republican Party must do a better job of explaining our values,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus acknowledged in an op-ed.
“We want to be a party for everybody, but that requires earning the trust of voters who have left the party and of those who have yet to support us.”
Eric Cantor, the number two House Republican, pledged a renewed commitment “to ensure every American has a fair shot at earning their success and achieving their dreams.”
But it will take more than one policy speech to restore the party, and many are seeking to soften the GOP’s tone, if not its core principles.
Kingpin Republican strategist Karl Rove has launched a group to push more mainstream candidates to go up against Tea Party conservatives, some of whose shocking remarks last year — think anti-abortionist Todd Akin discussing “legitimate rape” — cost Republicans two seats in the Senate.
Fox News, the conservative media flagship where pundit Dick Morris had predicted a Romney “landslide,” has meanwhile dumped Morris and Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, the failed 2008 vice presidential nominee, as contributors.
And Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, the rising star whose personal story gives Republicans cover on the all-important immigration debate, will be presenting his party’s response to Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday.
But there is no hard evidence that the GOP is transforming itself into a party of compassion and inclusion that is willing to compromise at crunch time.
Aside from a last-gasp deal on tax hikes for the very wealthy, there has been little cooperation with Democrats on major legislation.
Even though Rubio — declared “The Republican Savior” by Time magazine, which featured him on its cover this week — has proposed a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, he follows conservative orthodoxy.
He has voted “no” on major bipartisan bills that recently passed Congress, including the fiscal cliff deal, temporary suspension of the debt ceiling and relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
“No single person is going to be the savior of the Republican Party,” Brad Marston, a Republican campaign expert at FourTier Strategies, told AFP.
“Rubio is going to be an important voice, especially on immigration, (but) I don’t think you’ll see Rubio moderate either his views or his tone until he decides to run for president.”
Any moderation by the party would not come without an internal fight.
Rove’s new Conservative Victory Group received intense pushback from the Tea Party, with congressman Steve King — an arch-conservative from Iowa who is mulling a Senate run in 2014 — leading the charge.
“I have not made a decision” about running, King said in a fiery email to backers Thursday, “but already Karl Rove and his army have launched a crusade against me.”
Leading conservative William Kristol meanwhile expressed frustration about the prospect of a rebrand.
“If I hear another politician talking about rebranding the party or changing the image,” Kristol mused on Fox. “I really think they should talk less about rebranding themselves, and actually pass some legislation… which embodies conservative principles.”
Ultimately, the makeover may prove only skin deep, especially if conservatives use the party primaries to press their case for far-right candidates like King.
“In the United States, party leaders do not choose candidates,” cautioned professor John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College.
“No rebranding effort will get very far if people who vote in Republican primaries choose not to go along.”