Why the GOP needs its own Bill Clinton

The party of Reagan could use a figure like Bubba, who shepherded Democrats out of the political wilderness

Is there a conservative Bill Clinton out there who could get the GOP headed in the right direction?
(Image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Since President Obama's re-election, the sense that the GOP is in the midst of an existential crisis has only deepened. A new poll from Bloomberg shows that Obama's favorability ratings are at a three-year high, while the Republican Party's ratings are at a corresponding three-year low. Another poll from Pew indicates that Americans overwhelmingly agree with Obama and the Democrats on a host of issues, from taxes and the deficit to minimum wage and gun control. The latest data, combined with shifting demographics and Obama's convincing win in November, have all added to the impression that the Republican Party has drifted out of the mainstream of American politics.

With this dire situation as a backdrop, Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, both former speechwriters in the Bush administration, have written an article in Commentary that amounts to a manifesto for a new GOP. Arguing that middle- and working-class Americans view the Republican Party as "wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans," Gerson and Wehner lay out a broad plan that would see Republicans craft a new economic agenda focusing on social mobility; offer undocumented workers a path to citizenship; ditch a "hyper-individualistic" view of society in favor of one that promotes the communal good; make peace with gay marriage and generally tone down the rhetoric on divisive social issues; and "harness their policy views to the findings of science." All these changes, they argue, can be made without sacrificing core conservative principles.

It remains to be seen whether Republicans will stomach advice from veterans of an administration that unquestionably did real damage to the GOP's brand. Still, the point Gerson and Wehner are making has been echoed by several forward-thinking conservative commentators, the general theme being that Republicans not only have to change the way they deliver their message, but the substance of the message itself. The GOP either has to adapt or die, argues Ramesh Ponnuru at The New York Times:

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Today's Republicans are very good at tending the fire of Ronald Reagan's memory but not nearly as good at learning from his successes. They slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones. [The New York Times]

But who will lead the GOP out of the wilderness? Gerson and Wehner point to Bill Clinton and Britain's Tony Blair as examples of leaders who transformed their liberal parties in a successful bid to bring them back to power. Clinton's "New Democrats" unveiled a message stressing both equal opportunity and individual responsibility, and struck back against more extremist elements within the party. The most tangible policy result of their efforts was welfare reform, which helped Democrats shed their reputation as encouraging a "culture of dependency."

In other words, for a party that is always on the lookout for the next Reagan, perhaps Republicans would do better to identify the Clintons in their midst. At the moment, however, the pickings are slim, even amongst a younger crop of politicians — such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — who have merely put new faces on old Republican ideas. As Ross Douthat at The New York Times writes:

Real Republican reinvention is a cause in search of a standard bearer, and the right's reformers are doing a far, far better job proposing solutions to the G.O.P's dilemmas (and the country's problems) than they are persuading actual Republican politicians to embrace them. [The New York Times]

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