The GOP's Future: Let The Discussion Begin

On Saturday morning, in a packed pizza joint in northern Virginia, I watched as three Republican superstars -- Rep. Eric Cantor, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush - kicked off a "national conversation" with Americans to find out what happened to their party, where it's going, and what platform it will run on. The answers from Saturday were, in short: they're not entirely sure, they don't really know, and they're open to suggestions.

Since the defection by Sen. Arlen Specter pushed Republicans to the brink of irrelevance in DC, the GOP decided that if it's going to get back in the game, it should get out of the city. But what struck me was the tension between the party's eagerness to hear new ideas and the conviction that the ideas they have are really fine, already. After all, following a question from the restaurant's manager about how to help small businesses, a friend leaned over a whispered, "Do you think he'll say cut taxes?" A couple minutes later, Romney intoned: "The right thing to do is lower taxes.

The event was relatively unpolitical -- the words "Democrat" and "Republican" were hardly uttered -- and the speakers mostly hovered above policy issues save a few notable episodes, such as Cantor bashing of the Employee Free Choice Act ("the biggest misnomer of a bill that I've seen") and Bush suggesting that colleges should charge different amounts of money depending on a student's pre-professional track, so that, for example, a nurse would pay less for school than a psychologist.

But the speakers sometimes ping-ponged between openness and a return to principles. "It's a wide-open policy discussion," Cantor told the audience in his opening remarks. "Nothing is off limits," he said later, to a question from Time's Jay Newton-Small. "There's no exclusivity here." But in response to very next question, Cantor said the party will always be committed to the "essential principles" of "free markets, faith in the individual and faith in God."

And there's the rub. The fact is that for at least two of those principles, there already is a wide-open policy debate, even if most Republicans stand on one side. A wide-open policy debate about conservative values doesn't make a whole lot of sense, like an all-you-can-eat buffet with a two-plate limit. Political parties aren't like open buffets -- they're defined by limits and exclusivity.

I snagged Eric Cantor just before the event cleared out. In Massachusetts, I said, Mitt Romney took a liberal moderate issue -- universal health care -- and achieved it in a way that didn't violate his conservative principles. Was there an issue today that most Americans would think of as a liberal project, where Republicans were interested in developing their own policy?

"The environment," Cantor answered. You have "the conservative notion that it's prosperity that allows us to clean up the environment," he went on, and described a "natural marriage between opportunity and incentive-based policies."

But cap-and-trade? "Ohhh nooo!" he said with a half-smile and half-sigh, like a frustrated but patient tutor. "That's the government deciding on the value of carbon," he added, and Republicans want to look to the private sector.

The most interesting speaker was Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, who's caught in something like a political exile himself. He's not likely running for Senate (current Republican Gov. Charlie Christ is the presumptive favorite in that race) and his last name bears the largest political albatross since that guy whose surname rhymed with Osama.

"The other side has something. I don't like it, but they have it," he said. "It's time for conservatives to listen first, to not be nostalgic about the past." That immediately struck me as the most surprising statement of the event. Nostalgia is woven into the fabric of conservatism, not just by evergreen adoration of Ronald Reagan, but in the language, too:  "return to family values," and "standing athwart history, yelling Stop" are the hallmarks of a party that has long drawn inspiration and direction from sepia toned visions of the way things used to be.

Bush was hit hard on that quote in the only slightly testy exchange of the morning, with a young guy from Arlington named Steve Santelli. "Barack Obama is a hippie," said Santelli. "People learn more from Rush Limbaugh's show that they do in college." The audience clapped a little.

After the question and answer session I caught up with Santelli (no relation to CNBC's Rick, he assured me, "but our dads look eerily alike."). We ate free pizza -- an excellent margherita remix -- and I asked him whether the party needs new ideas or a return to older ones. He responded: "New messages. New traditional conservative messages."

That's a bit of an oxy-moron, but in a nutshell, it's exactly what the GOP is looking for: a new take on an old recipe. The margherita pizza did the trick. The Republicans don't have that yet, but at least they're out, about, and looking for ingredients.