The Republican Party's problem is its content, not its tactics
In a new episode of the Political Wire podcast, we chatted with Republican political strategist Mike Murphy about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) political troubles, the new Mitt Romney documentary MITT, and the GOP's biggest problems heading into 2016.
Here are five takeaways:
1. Christie's presidential chances have taken a dent, but don't write him off too quickly: Political headaches are mounting for Christie in the wake of the controversy over his administration's politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. But the media, Murphy said, have been quick to hype up the story's longer-term importance. It's unclear whether voters will care about this scandal two-plus years from now, he said. The main question, Murphy said, is: "Will there be any other shoe that drops?" If no new information emerges suggesting that Christie lied when he told reporters that he didn't know about the lane closures, the New Jersey governor may well survive the storm. He would enter 2016 as a formidable, but far from certain, candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.
2. An early version of MITT was never released. Releasing it could have helped voters get to know Romney better. The documentary, which chronicles Romney's unsuccessful six-year quest to win the White House, had an earlier version that never saw the light of day. The filmmaker, Greg Whiteley, had special access to Romney's 2008 presidential campaign, but Romney's team declined to release Whiteley's initial film, Murphy claimed. Now, a different version that also includes footage from the 2012 election was released at Sundance Film Festival and will be available on Netflix. With such close access, Whiteley portrayed a more multi-dimensional, nuanced Romney than the uncharismatic, at-times awkward Romney who appeared in public. "It would have been a hit if they had gotten it out before the 2012 campaign," Murphy suggested.
3. The Republican Party's problem is its content, not its tactics: It's been said before, and Murphy is saying it again: Republicans have to do more to boost their national appeal than simply change their messaging or organizing tactics. "There’s creaking recognition in the party about the problem we have on immigration reform," he said. "But we also have to look at some other policy matters." That being said, "fighting over content is the harder fight," since conservative groups are reluctant to change that content.
4. The fight over the GOP will stretch into 2016: Despite their systemic problems, Republicans may do very well in this November's midterm elections, retaining the House and possibly retaking the Senate "unless we nominate a complete idiot, particularly in Georgia," Murphy said. The danger lies in how the GOP responds in the long term to those near-term victories. Murphy notes that the 2014 electorate will be smaller and less Democratically aligned than 2016's is likely to be. "What worries me is that we’ll learn nothing, we’ll focus on technology and tactics and not focus on content, which is our biggest problem," he said. The establishment and movement conservatives' battle for the GOP's content, and the party's soul, will stretch into 2016.
5. Republicans' presidential hopes rest on nominating someone with broad appeal. But that's easier said than done. After center-right presidential nominees John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 lost their general election bids, conservatives argued that Republicans should have nominated an ideologically pure candidate. But Romney had to adopt several conservative litmus-test positions just to win the nomination, alienating swing voters in the process, Murphy said. Primary voters have to let their nominee hold more widely acceptable policies for the GOP to win in November 2016. Otherwise, Republicans will suffer Democrats' fate when they nominated far-left candidate George McGovern in 1972, Murphy said: "If we decide...to have a purity primary, we could nominate our McGovern and hand over the White House to Elizabeth Warren or Hillary Clinton or whoever their nominee is."
Listen to the whole conversation here: