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May 4, 2009

Rebranding the Grand Old Party

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week, Eric Cantor (R., VA) the Republican Whip in the U.S. House of Representative, spoke to the Republican faithful in Frederick. Congressman Cantor, arguably the fastest GOP rising star in the House, laid out a cogent argument for sticking to the core principles of the party and denying the clamor for fundamental, structural change.


Timing is everything in politics, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R., PA) had just switched his affiliation to the Democratic Party the day before Mr. Cantor’s speech. When Senator Specter’s name came up during Mr. Cantor’s remarks, the crowd reportedly hissed and booed.


It must have been easy to reject Senator Specter’s cut-and-run move, particularly in light of Representative Cantor’s advocacy for staying the course and holding firm to the conservative soul of the GOP.


Imagine the surprise in the minds of Frederick Republican faithful when they read news reports a few days later of Eric Cantor’s press event in Northern Virginia. Congressman Cantor was the only member of the U.S. House Caucus to appear at a meeting at an Arlington, VA, pizza parlor to discuss his party’s future.


Mr. Cantor, former Michigan governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush gathered over free pizza at Pie-tanza to unveil the National Council for a New America.


According to Mr. Cantor, this new organization is designed to engage Americans across the country in a dialogue of ideas. GOP leaders acknowledge the obvious, that American voters overwhelmingly rejected the national GOP platform in the interests of the promise of hope, change, and…well, not much else.


Mr. Cantor’s view seems accurate. He mentioned concerns with healthcare, the national economy, and education. Probably smart to avoid issues like immigration and gay marriage, it will be next to impossible to rally party faithful (core conservatives) and expand the “tent” (moderate Republicans) on those issues.


Jeb Bush seemed to be the most knowledgeable on the idea side, offering specific (and very encouraging) ideas about subsidizing college tuition for teachers and healthcare professionals and K-12 education reform. Governor Romney didn’t offer much beyond the ideas of his presidential campaign, ideas that didn’t really rally the base back then, either.


I made a conscious decision to leave the Republican Party last September. As I mentioned at the time, I took no pleasure in doing so. I did not join the Democratic Party; frankly I didn’t see any really great ideas bubbling over there, either.


My decision to disaffiliate from the major political parties reflected my sincere belief that politics and governance should be about ideas, not about nostalgia for times we recall from history when we think things were better.


So, now, after a drubbing in a national election, after the loss of the White House, both chambers of the Congress, a number of gubernatorial offices, and several state legislatures, leading Republicans find it necessary to travel America to “listen” to Americans.


It might seem fairly obvious (okay, maybe incredibly obvious) to the average American, but when it comes to a national political party, deciding to move beyond the DC Beltway to solicit the input of the average American voter signifies a major shift in thinking.


Of interest is who was missing from this little exercise as much as who is a part of it. With Representative Cantor the only major congressional Republican involved, one wonders where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., KY) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., OH) are in all of this.


National Republican Party Chairman (and former Maryland lieutenant governor) Michael Steele was also evident in his absence. This idea seems like something that would appeal to Chairman Steele. I know him personally; he’s a big idea guy who loves to engage in detailed discussions over policy matters.


My guess is that these guys have the job to do. They have to be the loyal opposition, the guys who go on the Sunday talk shows and attack the Obama Administration and congressional leaders on a weekly basis to tell Americans how bad the policy decisions of the Democratic Party really are.


It would be very difficult to include these guys on a listening tour across America, if the objective of that exercise is to solicit opinions from people from all walks of life.


If the Cantor/Romney/Bush listening tour truly engages average Americans in an honest conversation about the future of our nation and how best to govern during difficult times, it may be the most important thing that has happened to Republicans in the years since the Reagan presidency.


If, however, this listening tour becomes a vehicle to prop up a particular candidate, or to sell the nostalgia of a time when Republican rule dominated government, it will be exposed as a failure and will extend the time it takes for the GOP to return to power.


I’d love to be a part of a political movement focused on ideas that will improve the lives of Americans. Healthcare, higher education, job creation, and limited government focused on our domestic interests seem to be the fundamental priorities that can make us safe and prosperous.


It remains to be seen whether the National Council for a New America is the vehicle through which the Republican Party will re-establish its mission and vision. I’d be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. I just wish this had been done years ago.


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