Posted: Jan 25, 2013 4:53 PM by Stephanie Condon - CBS News
For the past two years, since winning back control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party has had a remarkably singular focus on cutting government spending.
The debt limit needs to be raised? Not without cutting spending. New Jersey needs emergency relief funds after a hurricane? Some conservatives first wanted to find a way to offset those costs.
The focus on spending was far from a surprise: The GOP made huge gains in the 2010 election on a wave of tea party zeal based on concerns about President Obama's government overreach. The debt, meanwhile, has increased $5.8 trillion under Mr. Obama's leadership. The attention on this issue, however, hasn't paid off in the polls or the ballot box. The president easily won re-election last year, while Democrats made gains in both the House and the Senate. The latest CBS News/ New York Times poll shows that congressional Republicans have just a 19 percent approval rating.
With the 2012 elections behind them, the Republican Party is now trying to regroup. A week after House Republicans met behind closed doors to ponder their future, GOP leaders are gathering at the Republican National Committee (RNC)'s winter meeting this week in Charlotte, N.C., to discuss the way forward, which means moving beyond spending cuts.
"Today's conservatism is completely wrapped up in solving the hideous mess that is the federal budget, the burgeoning deficits, the mammoth federal debt, the shortfall in our entitlement programs...even as we invent new entitlement programs," Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said at the meeting last night. "We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping. This is a rigged game, and it is the wrong game for us to play."
"We as Republicans have to accept that government number crunching - even conservative number crunching - is not the answer to our nation's problems," Jindal continued. "We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth."
Moving away from a message of austerity will be difficult, given that Congress must still decide whether to avert the looming "sequestration" cuts set to kick in March 1. They must also in the coming months raise the nation's debt limit while explaining to voters what it means for the nation's bills and for the nation's future spending. But even as they broach these thorny issues, GOP leaders say they need to do a better job explaining their economic positions to voters, working on other issues and expanding their appeal beyond their conservative base.
Jindal and other leaders stress that one of their most immediate challenges is simply recalibrating their message -- not changing their principles.
"We have to a better job connecting the dots for the American people," Republican strategist Terry Holt told CBSNews.com. Holt worked as a senior communication strategist for three presidential campaigns, including the Bush-Cheney campaigns, and served as communications director for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
"Concerns that Republicans have about the debt and deficit have to be translated into the everyday impact it has on average Americans," Holt continued. "We often have this problem when we talk about 'entitlement reform' -- those words aren't particularly effective in communicating what the crisis is there. When we talk about fixing Medicare, it's often in budgetary terms. Or when we should be talking about making health care better, we're instead talking about making health care cheaper."
Adding to the challenge is the Republican notion that Mr. Obama has refused to engage in a serious discussion about deficits and debt, or spending cuts. "While he refuses to talk about them, we've become fixated on talking about them," Holt said.
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who attended last week's House Republican retreat, told CBSNews.com that her research following the presidential election bears that out. Republicans lost last year, she said, in part because they weren't framing their discussion about the economy in terms that matter most to voters (Conway's research shows voters largely care about economic security and affordability). Additionally, she said, the GOP's focus on the economy was just too overwhelming.
The economy, Conway noted, has for several years been the top issue for the plurality of voters -- around 42 percent of voters, she said.
"The Romney people thought [focusing on] the economy would be enough," Conway said. "It's not enough. The 42 percent dismisses the other 58 percent... [The GOP] put too much emphasis on the economy to the exclusion of things like foreign policy, immigration, education and, frankly, to the exclusion of necessities like using new media to reach voters."
Republicans are now working on expanding their agenda -- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for instance, is leading the way on immigration. They're also working on updating their operations, so they can catch up to the Democrats' ground game and use of new media.
"We need to empower, equip and train our candidates, volunteers, and operatives," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus plans to say today at the winter meeting, "whether it's a college activist recruiting volunteers in Pasadena or a small businesswoman running for town council in New Jersey. Let's host Skype-based training sessions and Google hangouts on campaign strategy, fundraising, door-to-door advocacy, and digital tools... In the digital space, we don't want just to keep up. We want to seize the lead."
Priebus and Jindal are not only prescribing a more sophisticated technical network but also a stronger, broader grassroots network. Jindal said yesterday that the party needs to "re-orient our focus to the place where conservatism thrives - in the real world beyond the Washington Beltway." Priebus, in his planned remarks, notes that "it's time to stop looking at elections through the lens of 'battleground states.' We have four years till the next presidential election, and being a 'blue state' is not a permanent diagnosis."
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