What happened
The Republican Party this week re-ignited a fierce internal debate over how to change its political trajectory, as party leaders released a damning self-diagnosis of how it lost last year’s presidential election. The 100-page “Growth and Opportunity Project,” prepared by the Republican National Committee, outlined the party’s image problems in stark terms, reporting that many voters see the GOP as a “scary” and “narrow-minded” party of “stuffy old men.” The report said the party needed to build bridges to minority, female, and young voters, and to adopt a shortened primary season, with fewer debates. RNC chairman Reince Priebus pledged $10 million for an “aggressive marketing campaign” aimed at Hispanics and other minorities. “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself,” he said. “Devastatingly, we have lost the ability to be persuasive with or welcoming to those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

The RNC’s report was rejected by Tea Party activists, underlining a widening split in the party between establishment Republicans and grassroots conservatives. “[We] don’t need an ‘autopsy’ report from the RNC to know they failed to promote our principles, and lost because of it,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. The RNC report came just days after the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Tea Party–aligned politicians insisted that Republicans simply needed to explain more effectively their principles of free enterprise, individual liberty, and personal responsibility. “We don’t need any new ideas,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “The idea is called America, and it still works.”

What the editorials said
The RNC’s “encouragingly candid” report could be “the beginning of the party’s return to the mainstream,” said The New York Times. But its recommendations don’t go nearly far enough. The GOP’s real problem is its “extremist” fixation on lowering taxes for the rich and taking an ax to social programs for seniors, the poor, and the struggling middle class. As long as it’s wedded to discredited trickle-down economics, exclusionary social policies, and voter ID laws that are clearly hostile to minority voters, the GOP will continue “alienating large segments of the public.”
The party’s biggest problem in 2012 was not its policies or its extended primary process, but “the quality of the candidates,” said WashingtonExaminer.com.Shortening the primary calendar will only give establishment moderates like Mitt Romney a pronounced advantage over grassroots conservatives, who “rely on upset wins in early primaries.” But an endless primary season damages all the candidates, said NationalReview.com. The “unwieldy” 2012 primary season of 20 debates gave President Obama a head start on fundraising and organization, while Romney and his rivals beat each other up. The GOP faces serious messaging and demographic problems, but the primary process, at least, we can change.

What the columnists said
“Is this a plan for the future or a suicide note?” said Michael Goodwin in the New York Post. With its whimpering “tone of surrender,” this report simply repeats the liberal slander that Republicans are “ideologically rigid and indifferent to the middle class.” Republicans hold 30 of the nation’s governorships, and the only reason we lost the presidency in 2012 was because of “Obama’s rock star appeal.” That’s delusional, said Jennifer Rubin in WashingtonPost.com. If the GOP doesn’t stop playing solely to its base in the red states, and find a way to win over women, the young, and minorities, “it will atrophy as a national party.”

Indeed it will, said Ross Douthat in NYTimes.com. But the Republicans’ most fundamental problem is their deeply unpopular economic policies, and their insistence that the federal government can play no beneficial role in job creation, health care, and education. As long as the GOP goes into battle behind Rep. Paul Ryan’s vision of a society where individuals rise and fall without help or much of a safety net, it faces a “permanent-minority fate.”

Good luck with convincing conservatives of that, said David Horsey in the Los Angeles Times. At CPAC, “the fevered, insular mind-set” that cost Republicans not only the presidency but the Senate was on full display, with extremist ideologues like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, and the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre dominating the agenda. “The war for the soul of the Republican Party” has only just begun.