As Republicans regroup from electoral disaster, some -- including a rising star in the Senate -- insist conservatism was not to blame.
Why did Republicans lose the 2012 election? Ask Ted Cruz, the newly elected Republican senator from Texas.
"Do you want to know why Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote?" Cruz asked a Washington hotel ballroom filled with conservative activists belonging to a group called the American Principles Project on Thursday night. "The tone on immigration contributed. But I think far more important was 47 percent."
The room was quiet -- not a fork clinked on a plate of overcooked steak drenched in melted brie as Cruz, a diminutive figure with slicked-down, side-parted black hair and the vocal cadence of a Texas country preacher, hastened to explain that he wasn't blaming Mitt Romney.
"I think Mitt Romney's a good man, a man of character, a man who ran a hard, disciplined campaign," he said. "But Republicans nationally, the story we conveyed, was 47 percent are stuck in a static world. We don't have to worry about them is what that clip famously said."
Cruz continued: "I cannot think of an idea more antithetical to the American principles this country was founded on."
It is a funny time to be Ted Cruz, a Tea Party hero and 41-year-old Cuban-American up-and-comer. He defeated an establishment Republican in a brutal Texas primary in what would prove to be conservatives' rare bright spot of 2012. Now Mr. Tea Party has come to Washington only to find his party in the dumps, demoralized and groping for answers. He is a rising star in a firmament whose lights have dimmed.
The debate within the Grand Old Party has begun to take shape along familiar lines. Some call on the party to moderate its positions; others insist it only needs to articulate them more forcefully. Then there are those who darkly foresee the day the American people, having chosen the path of disaster, get their comeuppance.
"Oh yes, we are all very sad," a silver-haired business lobbyist named Michael Maibach said when I asked him how Republicans were coping. "Some of us have turned to drugs; others are in therapy."
But Maibach turned serious as he contemplated the second term afforded Obama, a man whose "hero is Saul Alinsky," who was "raised in two former colonies and never had a continental experience." The fact that he was reelected, Maibach said, was a sign of a country whose character was in decline, where responsibility had fallen out of favor.
"I'm a Christian. There's always hope," he said. But what he'd learned from the election, he said, was that for Americans to grasp the threat, "obviously, things will have to get worse." Just as a series of mediocre presidents failed to prevent the Civil War, he said, "we've just had our election of 1856."
Cruz, standing to the side of the podium before a Crayola-blue curtain with a microphone clipped to his tie, insisted in an impassioned 30-minute speech that blaming the voters was not what he was there to do.
"More than a few conservatives say, well, if the voters want to bankrupt our country, let them suffer the consequences," he said. But the real problem, Cruz said, was that "Republicans were curled up in the fetal position, so utterly terrified of the words 'George W. Bush'" -- for whom Cruz once worked, as a campaign adviser and in the Justice Department -- "that we never bothered to contest" Obama's economic arguments. The "utterly ridiculous notion" of a "war on women" also went unchallenged, in Cruz's telling.
The other speakers at the dinner -- which was also attended by two members of Congress, Raul Labrador of Idaho and Steve King of Iowa, as well as a former Commerce Secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, and emceed by Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard -- were even more adamant that it was the method, not the message, that lost the election for the GOP.
"2012 was the exact opposite of the kind of the election we at the American Principles Project think the Republican Party and the conservative movement need to run," said Frank Cannon, the group's president. It was an election, he explained, in which Republicans accepted the notion of a "truce" on social issues and spent $1 billion single-mindedly trying to convince people they would be better stewards of the economy.
"We decided not to fight for religious liberty, not to fight for traditional marriage, not to fight for unborn children in America," he added. "And it was an abysmal failure."
Sean Fieler, the group's chairman, dismissed the idea that Republicans could succeed by "mimicking the tactics of the left." "Creating ever more resonant mantras, an ever better organized party, and hiring a raft of behavioral scientists to manipulate and manage the electorate will not breathe new life into the American experiment," he said. "Such efforts will not even deliver us an electoral victory." Those tactics, he said, could work only for the political party that panders to people's baser instincts with class warfare and "the enthusiastic embrace of sexual impulses" -- the Democrats.
In the wake of the "devastating political catastrophe of November 6," said Robert George, a Princeton law professor and the group's founder, some on the right have drawn the conclusion that the solution is "you abandon your principles and run on theirs." But the situation, he said, was really not so different than 1964, when Barry Goldwater's loss prompted a retooling that eventually brought forth Ronald Reagan.
With history as their guide, he suggested, the GOP could come roaring back -- and in just 16 short years.