Growing Pains

5 minute read
Michael Scherer; Zeke Miller

Republican party boss Reince Priebus, a pin-striped lawyer from Wisconsin, recently let slip that he wanted a date with Whoopi Goldberg and her friends. “We have to stop divorcing ourselves from the American culture,” he explained on March 18 as he laid out his plan to rebuild the party after its 2012 election defeat. “Maybe that might mean I could get an invitation with the ladies of The View. We’ll see.”

Most party chairmen try to avoid the headlines. But in recent weeks, Priebus has adopted a pose of brutal candor, trying to stir up his party with dire predictions and frank language. “Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren’t inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital. Our primary and debate process needed improvement,” he said, diagnosing all that went wrong in last year’s campaign. “There’s no one solution,” Priebus continued. “There’s a long list of them.”

The solutions Priebus proposed include an overhaul not just of campaign mechanics but also the basic DNA that has helped to define the party of Reagan, Bush and Romney over three decades. Stop attacking popular culture, and start becoming a part of it, he says. Open a party office near San Francisco to attract high-tech hipsters. Cut the number of primary debates in half. Spend $10 million a year to send full-time organizers into minority communities. Dump or moderate the policy positions that are turning off the next generation of voters.

“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” one part of the Priebus report urges, contradicting the official 2012 party platform, which opposes “any form of amnesty” for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.: “If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink.” It also recommends opening a debate within the party over opposition to gay marriage. “For many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be,” says the report. For Priebus, the new watchword must be inclusiveness: “Our 80% friend is not our 20% enemy.”

Ari Fleischer, a former aide to President George W. Bush who worked with Priebus on the report, says he hopes the party takes these messages to heart and revises its philosophy. Otherwise, he says, “It is a very bleak picture for Republicans.” Already, he notes, the current GOP message of small government and low taxes is not enough to attract more than minimal interest among minorities and the young. “Devastatingly, we have lost the ability to be persuasive,” he says.

Since November, Priebus, Fleischer and others have canvassed more than 50,000 people, including much of the Republican establishment. Focus groups of former Republican voters in Ohio and Iowa evinced descriptions of the GOP like “scary,” “narrow-minded,” “stuffy old men” and “out of touch.” Even the party’s campaign managers and operatives were nearly unanimous in crediting Democrats with running better campaigns in almost all respects: data, voter targeting, outreach, turnout, online fundraising, ad placement and campaign talent.

In Brooklyn, conservative black clergy told Priebus about the harm done by Republican efforts to cleanse voter rolls. In Denver, Hispanic Republicans talked about the pain caused by Mitt Romney’s promise of “self-deportation.” In California, Priebus met with an elected Asian-American Republican who regularly sees 10 Democrats at community events she attends alone. Even the donors were restless. “Look, you are young. You are smart. If you want a job, I’ll give you a job down the hallway,” Priebus remembers a major Republican donor in New York City telling him in December. “But here’s the deal. If you are not going to be big and bold, don’t waste my time. Don’t waste your kids’ time. Don’t waste your wife’s time.”

Republican leaders say they like the proposed changes. House Speaker John Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor have embraced the report; so has former House Speaker and occasional presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. The question now is whether the conservative base of the party is willing to come along for a big and bold ride. Some of the immediate reviews are not so positive. John Tate, the 2012 campaign manager for Ron Paul, said the Priebus plans to shorten the primary process and move away from caucuses could tilt the playing field to well-funded establishment candidates. “They are recommending doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing to reactivate the grassroots and increase the base of the party,” he said.

Priebus made his proposals at the very moment when the uncompromising guardians of the party’s right wing had gathered outside of Washington to bash the capital’s consultant class–that collection of professional campaign technicians who know winning in presidential elections means keeping the party from veering too far to the right. “Stop listening to the professional politicians and consultants most responsible for those political train wrecks,” warned longtime activist L. Brent Bozell III in a typical turn that garnered huge applause. Other mainstays of social conservatism, like the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly and Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed, warn that they will fight any effort to change the party’s approach to gay marriage. “If someone tries,” warns Reed, “they’re going to have to get through me.” Says Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council: “Obviously the RNC report was designed to pander to the GOP’s wealthy elites.”

Back at his office two blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Priebus sounds no less determined as he sits before a color-coded congressional map of the country, still mostly red, despite the fact that House Democratic candidates attracted about 1.4 million more votes in 2012 than Republicans did. “I am not going to sit here,” he says, “and grind away as chairman of the party and do the same old thing that has always been done.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at