A panel of Republican bigwigs didn’t decide on the future of their currently fractured political party, but they did have a few ideas.
In an Aspen Ideas Festival conversation at the Greenwald Pavilion on Thursday, former Congressman and Republican strategist Vin Weber moderated a discussion with Elaine Chao, secretary of labor for former President George W. Bush; Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and a policy strategist in the George W. Bush White House; and Karl Rove, perhaps the best-known conservative political operative of our time.
Weber stated at the outset a desire to focus on the challenges the party faces in developing a compelling policy platform. Gerson said the current small-government, libertarian-oriented tilt of the party doesn’t connect with the working-class voters Republicans need to reach.
To punctuate his point, Gerson said unemployment rates for those with college degrees were one sixth as high as those with high school degrees.
“We’re in an economy that’s increasingly segregated by class, based on things like skills, education, family structure,” Gerson said. “The question is: Are Republicans going to speak to the lived experience of Americans they need to appeal to on the economy? I don’t think libertarianism speaks to those concerns effectively.”
Rove agreed that, too often, current libertarians in Congress are less oriented toward problem-solving and more likely to say, “If I don’t have a 100 percent perfect answer, I’m going to vote ‘no.’”
So what does the party offer the public beyond low taxes, small government and no compromise?
Chao said job creation, economic growth and small government are still part of the message but that perhaps the GOP should deliver it differently.
“We need to speak about these issues with compassion, and sometimes Republicans do not speak with a voice of compassion,” she said. “I think just the basics, but you have to say it in a way that’s appealing.”
Gerson said Republicans must acknowledge the country’s changing demographics and reach out to Americans beyond their traditional base, “even to people you know aren’t going to vote for you because it shows you care about the whole.”
Beyond that, Gerson said, the party needs to be proactive on immigration reform, simply in order to show the public — Hispanics, especially — that the party is changing direction from the anti-immigrant laws and rhetoric of recent years. And why stop there? Gerson suggested that the party “take on the concentration of power in the big banks, or corporate welfare, to symbolize that you’re not on the side of a corporate culture.”
Rove agreed with Gerson but also said it’s more about having a positive, forward-looking message that is true to Republican principles but reaches out to others, as well. He pointed to Bush’s message of “compassionate conservatism” that helped get him elected in 2000.
“It’s the (party) leaders who dominate the public dialogue, and we have too many leaders in that dialogue who are retrogressive and not forward-looking,” Rove said.
All three panelists agreed that the GOP ought to support an internationalist view of the United States and that the country must remain an active leader in world affairs despite growing numbers of Republicans who prefer a more isolationist foreign policy. As Gerson put it, “That’s always what happens in America is that we think these are optional commitments until they become crises that threaten us.”
So, who will be the Republican standard-bearer in 2016? Whom do the panelists like to carry a reinvented GOP into the next election cycle?
Among the names mentioned were Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, Gov. Chris Christie, of New Jersey, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Gov. John Kasich, of Ohio, and John Snyder, governor of Michigan.
The panelists all hoped for a robust, diverse field of candidates, but they also said the party must rein in the primary debate process and weed out “billionaire-supported candidates” who aren’t serious about the presidency.
“A candidate can really benefit from a tough primary challenge,” Gerson said, referring to Mitt Romney. “You don’t benefit from being serially almost beaten by a series of joke candidates, and that’s the way the primary process worked in the last election.”
Returning to a suggestion Gerson made before — that the party show its support for individual enterprise and working-class people by tackling corporate welfare — Rove closed the session by striking a populist tone.
“Our government has gotten too big, and there’s too much corporate welfare,” Rove said. “We’ve got a system that benefits the big guy over the little guy, and we need to reform it. And we’ve got a government with way too much benefits that flow to the people who’ve got the money,”
Rove said he’d like to see a future candidate stand up and articulate these positions. Stay tuned for the next election cycle.