No matter how hard politicians try, party reinventions are never pretty -- and hardly ever subtle. The trick is twofold: First, tell voters you weren't really wrong -- your message just wasn't getting through. Next, shift positions, without admitting you had to change positions to survive.
Bill Clinton, both as a candidate and as president, was the master of reinvention. As a Southern governor, he saw a party that was too liberal, so he pushed it to the center. And when he took a shellacking in the 1994 midterm elections, with Democrats losing control of the House, he took advantage of it, forcing newly empowered Republicans to lead alongside him. Imagine that.
So now comes the latest effort at reinvention, this time from Republicans. There's a new catchphrase, I gather -- since I've heard it in a number of conversations with GOP operatives. "We need to finish the sentence," one senior GOP strategist told me. "It's not just enough to say we want to cut spending. We have to try to bring it home to show how our policies affect people's lives."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor likewise opined this week that all Republicans want to do is "help people" and the problem is that they have not "completed the sentence."
So did Republicans just spend a billion dollars on a presidential campaign without "completing the sentence"? Funny, but I think they completed entire paragraphs -- on issues like immigration and taxes -- and they were summarily rejected. If I recall, the GOP debates droned on for months, replete with fully formed and punctuated treatises on everything, including the introduction of the novel idea of self-deportation of illegal immigrants.
Ah, but that was then. Now we know the messaging was bad. And we are getting to the second stage: the recalibration. "Think of it as a reappraisal," one senior GOP strategist told me.
I prefer to think of it as a matter of survival.
Consider some recent events: an eleventh-hour compromise on the fiscal cliff, which included tax hikes; a GOP decision to delay the debt-ceiling deadline; Republican participation in possible immigration reform. Sure, the president has more leverage, but Republicans have more incentive to get something done, too.
All of which is good. What's also promising are the clear signs that the oversized influence of the tea party is receding. There's no great mystery about it: That's what happens to localized and decentralized grass-roots movements. And no, it's not gone; it has just been put in perspective, freeing up GOP congressional leaders to do what they should have done all along: cut some deals. The long-term political calculation is pretty simple: Political parties can't survive when governed by a single special interest. Period.
That's why, for instance, Karl Rove's American Crossroads group -- after spending more than $100 million on largely unsuccessful Senate candidates -- has decided to get involved in GOP primaries to get better candidates. Some groups within the GOP that prefer ideological purity are balking predictably, accusing Rove, of all things, of being too moderate.
Actually, Rove is just being political: Tea party candidates accounted for about a half dozen losses in competitive Senate contests. Says one strategist affiliated with Rove's group: "We find that the novelty of losing is wearing off."
That's why reinventions were invented.
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