Milbank: Republicans offer big tent, with an asterisk
The Republican National Committee released a report Monday charting the party's road to revival - only for RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to give its most important recommendations the Grand Old Punt.
Tucked into the 100-page document - mostly a compilation of prosaic suggestions such as "reinstitute field finance team structure" and "develop a surrogate list of women" - are a few crucial sentences about policies Republicans must embrace for the party to remain viable: a path to legal status for illegal immigrants and more acceptance of gay rights.
Republicans "must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," it concludes. "If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."
Further, the report concludes, Republicans "need to make sure young people do not see the party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view. Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays - and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be."
But in his 27-minute speech at the National Press Club announcing the report, the words "immigration" and "gay" didn't cross Priebus' lips. Questioned by the moderator about whether there is "a need to shift some basic positions on some of the issues," he asserted that there is not. "No," he said, "I think our policies are sound."
After the event, reporters surrounded Priebus to ask him about the report's call for "comprehensive immigration reform" - shorthand in Washington for a policy that includes legalization. "To some people, that means securing the border; to some people, that means E-Verify," he said, referring to workplace checks of immigration status. "To some people, that means a pathway."
Politico's Jonathan Martin pressed him on legalization, and the chairman bristled.
"You're not going to bulldog me, buddy," Priebus said.
Presumably, he meant "bulldoze," but his response, a felicitous echo of "Don't tase me, bro," is an indication of how bullheaded the party remains on immigration reform.
The report's authors had been assigned to diagnose mechanical problems in the party, not policy problems, but they recognized, correctly, that the hard line on social issues "will limit our ability to attract young people" and women, and that the hard line on immigration repels Latinos: "If Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies."
One of the report's authors, Ari Fleischer, said before Priebus' speech that the demographic gap "is a killer" for the party. "It's going to be very hard for Republicans to win if Republicans don't do better in many of these communities," said Fleischer, a former spokesman for George W. Bush.
Priebus, giving the presentation on his 41st birthday, said that after November's "wake-up call," the Republicans were taking "a fresh start." With commendable honesty, he acknowledged that "focus groups described our party as narrow-minded, out of touch and, quote, 'stuffy old men.' ... The perception that we're the party of the rich, unfortunately, continues to grow."
"We know that we have problems, we have identified them, and we're implementing the solutions to fix them," the chairman said.
But he dismissed the notion that these problems could be related to positions the GOP has taken. "To be clear, our principles are sound," Priebus asserted, moving on to read a flurry of numbered recommendations: "Nine, work with state parties, sister committees. ... Third, I want to hold hackathons in tech-savvy cities."
Many of the ideas are good, such as the calls for fewer debates, and primaries rather than caucuses. But Priebus, in the Q&A, took pains to avoid offending the conservative orthodoxy that is antagonizing segments of the electorate that Republicans need if they are to win. He embraced voter ID laws (an irritant to many minority voters) and was cautious about GOP Sen. Rob Portman's acceptance last week of same-sex marriage ("It's not a matter of whether I support his decision. I support him doing what he wants to do as an elected person and as an American").
The chairman also declined an invitation to distance the party from inflammatory commentators on racial matters such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter: "I welcome everyone into our party, no matter what spectrum in our party or wherever they're at on the conservative, in that bandwidth, they're welcome."
All are welcome in the Republican Party - as long as they're conservative.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.