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GOP embraces cosmetic makeover, tweaking tone not principles

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U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, addresses the media following a Republican Conference meeting on Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. From left are: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, Conference Vice Chairman Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-KS, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, Rep. Susan Brooks, R-IN, Conference Chairman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA, and Rep. Tom Price, R-GA.

 

Published at 4:35 a.m. ET: After their electoral drubbing last November — their second straight in a presidential contest — Republicans have faced a choice. Do they change their policies or their tone?

For now, many top Republicans in Washington seem to have opted for the latter, deciding that a more articulate re-statement of the party's long-held principles will suffice in their effort to attract new voters to the GOP.

"I wouldn't say shift in policy," pollster Jim McLaughlin said of his advice for fellow Republicans. "Republicans have to make adjustments there, but they have to stick to their principles."

McLaughlin's words echo what many Republicans have argued since the election: It's not the party's long-held principles that are the problem, but rather, the way the party's leaders articulate those principles to voters.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., offered a perfect example of current Republican thinking when he delivered a major policy speech that rehashed a number of familiar policies on education, immigration and entitlements under his new "make life work" veneer.

The No. 2 Republican in the House re-framed some of his party's most familiar proposals as an agenda intended to ease the plight of most American families. (The lone new pronouncement was Cantor's endorsement of the thrust of the DREAM Act, a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children a pathway to citizenship.)

He disputed the notion that his speech was part of a broader effort to soften the GOP's image: "The average American is not thinking about and wondering about where the Republican Party is," Cantor told one questioner.

But the Virginia congressman's speech is representative of an emerging consensus that a more modern restatement of their long-held principles will suffice in seeking to broaden the party's appeal.

And indeed, President Barack Obama's agenda seems poised to stress-test some of the Republican Party's most bedrock policies.

If Republicans can rebuff the president, it could prove the resiliency of their stances. A victory for the president, on the other hand, could tear through the GOP like a buzzsaw. The GOP is arguably facing the most direct challenge in decades to the tenets that have formed the foundation of Republican Party politics for the better part of three decades.

Republican Eric Cantor calls for legal residence and citizenship for children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington conservative think tank.

Public opinion shifting
Republicans' decision to hew closely to those long-held principles is not without dissent, however.

"People focus on the 2012 elections, but it's deeper than that," said former Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican who leads the moderate "Main Street Partnership."

"It can't just be tone," LaTourette argued. "Because just changing the tone is going to be like putting a lipstick on a pig — it pretties things up, but doesn't really change the fact that it's a pig."

The next four years — the midterm elections in 2014 and the next presidential contest in 2016 — will offer a major test of which school of thought is right.

Obama's second term agenda seems almost directly intended to challenge the GOP on taxes, entitlements, immigration, social issues and foreign policy.

Terminally low taxes, hawkish foreign policy, largely unfettered gun rights and opposition to abortion and gay rights have defined the GOP since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. And as recently as 2004, President George W. Bush's re-election seemed to signify a sweeping affirmation of these central principles.

But Obama already won new revenue during the first installment of the "fiscal cliff" fight, and his forthcoming budget is almost sure to seek more tax increases. The president is demanding an immigration bill and the first major gun law since the 1990s. Obama has also consistently advocated for new gay rights, and public opinion has followed (however slowly). And last month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that a majority of Americans support abortion rights — an issue which Democrats used against Republicans to great effect during the election — for the first time in history.

On an even more foundational issue, last November's exit polls revealed a change in tide against Republicans' opposition to new taxes under any circumstances. Almost half of voters — and 70 percent of independents — agreed that income taxes should increase, at a bare minimum, for households earning more than $250,000 per year.

For Republicans, the road map back to victory involves speaking less stridently about some of these issues, and emphasizing certain elements of the GOP platform over others. Virtually all Republicans recoil at the comments last fall about "legitimate rape" by Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, but no mainstream GOP leader has suggested that the party jettison its longstanding opposition to abortion rights. The new strategy might involve sidestepping conversations altogether about abortions in the instances of rape, instead emphasizing Republican policies that might support women's economic mobility.

And already, a new effort led by former Bush political guru Karl Rove has vowed to combat candidates like Akin in primaries and help to nominate more electable Republican candidates. (A separate effort spearheaded by another onetime Bush adviser, Ed Gilliespie, and two Hispanic GOP governors, Suzana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, will look to recruit more minority Republican candidates.)

LaTourette, the former congressman, suggested the answer might be simpler. The GOP, he said, is should just get things — something, anything — done.

"There needs to be some sort of reasonable approach to demonstrate that we're all in this together," he said, "a willingness to do the doable and get things done."

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