What Should the Republican Party Stand For?

GOP leaders don't just want to be the party of "no" -- but they have a hard time articulating what they want to say "yes" to.


CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- Republicans are trying to refashion the party in the wake of their 2012 defeat. But they keep running into a problem: They can't agree on what the party's positive agenda ought to be.

Preventing President Obama and Democrats from doing things they don't like doesn't constitute a governing platform. Should the GOP take a more moderate position on immigration reform, which is popular with the public as a whole and could help the GOP with Hispanics? How about gun control, where large public majorities disagree with NRA-style Second Amendment absolutism? Are hardline Republican stances on gay marriage and abortion alienating young voters and women? Taxes and spending have been the party's traditional strength, but Obama had the public on his side in raising taxes on the wealthy, and he used Paul Ryan's proposals for trimming entitlements as a bludgeon in the presidential campaign. And when it comes to a foreign policy, Republicans are all over the map.

This is the real crisis facing the GOP: Articulating a set of stances on issues that majorities of voters agree with, in a way that convinces people they'd be able to govern if given the chance.

At the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in Charlotte this week, I posed the question, parlor-game-style, to a wide swath of GOP leaders from all over the country: What did they think the party ought to stand for? If they recited the mantra of "smaller government, lower taxes," I tried to get them to say what significant parts of the government they'd reduce and whose taxes they would cut. Here are some of the answers I got.

Dana Randall, South Dakota national committeeman: "In South Dakota, they're spending money to chase elk out of a national park, when they could be making money off people to hunt them. Our national forests could be handled more responsibly. After 9/11, they built all these fancy fences around the airport in Aberdeen, but the fence is hanging open!"

Jay Shepard, Vermont national committeeman: "I have a bit of an issue with the idea that we have to stand for something specific on every issue. Why do we have to be the pro-life party, when a huge number of Republicans are pro-choice? Why are we the only party having this discussion? You can get six Republicans talking about immigration reform and you'll hear eight opinions. We need to let people know we're not always top-down."

Mark Willis, Maine national committeeman: "A noninterventionist foreign policy, the abolition of the TSA, and ending the Federal Reserve."

Newt Gingrich, former House speaker: "We need to stand for the kind of problem-solving that leads to more economic growth, more jobs and more take-home pay. A health system that enables people to have the longest life at the lowest cost. It's going to take a decade or more of inventing big, conservative solutions .... House Republicans ought to hold hearings focused on waste and specific scandals. A lot of Republicans, frankly, spent the last two years saying, 'Oh, gee, we don't have to do much because after Obama loses we'll be in charge.' Well, now that world has ended."

Dave Agema, Michigan national committeeman: "Traditional family values. Fiscal conservatism, yet willing to help those in need. That's what we really are. We should have a basic safety net, but too often it becomes a hammock. Our values are what make America great -- a mom and a dad. Look what we have today with all these broken families. They have a much higher possibility of being poor."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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