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Shaking Up The Grand Old Party


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, journalist Brian Beutler was heading home late one night when he was shot in an attempted robbery. He's written about that incident and why it hasn't changed the way he feels about race or guns. That's in just a few minutes. But first, let's talk politics. The Republican Party is still trying to hit the reset button months after the Electoral College drubbing they took in the 2012 presidential race. And how to rebrand the party was at the top of the agenda of a sometimes contentious Republican National Committee meeting in Boston last week. But RNC chair Reince Priebus told ABC News that the internal GOP debate is a sign of strength.


REINCE PRIEBUS: You know what? A healthy family debate is not a bad thing at all and I really believe that. I don't think, at a time when we just came off of a presidential election, that having a party that is just dull and boring is something that is good for not just our party, but for this country.

HEADLEE: Joining us to talk more about this and the Republican rebranding effort is Matthew Continetti. He's a political commentator and editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website. He's here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And joining us from New York is Ron Christie, former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former deputy assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney. He's now CEO of Christie Strategies. Welcome to you both.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: Thanks for having me.

RON CHRISTIE: Thanks for having us.

HEADLEE: Matt, let me begin with you. You wrote a piece for Washington Free Beacon, your website, that was called "Be Afraid." And what you're warning Republicans of is the possibility they could lose their majority in the House, correct?

CONTINETTI: Well, I thought it was useful to scare my fellow conservatives just a little bit, because I think that they're unaware of the electoral strategy the administration is pursuing at the moment. You know, the GOP has been kind of complacent because they feel that the electorate that will turn out next year will resemble the electorate that turned out in 2010. That was a - you know, overwhelmingly white electorate, it was also older. There is no guarantee of that. I think one reason why we've seen a lot of talk about racial issues in America from the administration over the last six months is precisely the sense of giving minority voters a stake in the coming midterm elections.

HEADLEE: And not just a stake, but of course the United States is demographically changing. Whites will no longer be the majority as voters for much longer, which makes those votes more important than ever. And there's another wrinkle for this, Ron. We've heard, especially after that Boston gathering, the war of words between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who's seen as a sort of star of the party, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, another sort of rising star. How serious is this split between somebody like Christie, who's more of a working pragmatist, and a libertarian like Rand Paul?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think it's healthy. I think the one thing I do agree with Chairman Reince Priebus, coming out of Boston, is that it's healthy to have a good sense of debate and division within the party, within the family. My main concern, frankly, is I still think that the establishment Republicans - those in Washington, D.C. - I still don't think they understand really what happened in the last election, and my fear is that the RNC and a lot of the establishment Republicans are going to replicate the mistakes of the last cycle heading into 2014.

HEADLEE: And, Matt, this feeds into the low opinion that Americans have of Congress, period, regardless of what party they are. But some of the polls have shown that, in terms of stagnation, there is a certain amount of blame headed for Republicans in the House, particularly, and that could result in a backlash, don't you think?

CONTINETTI: Well, I think Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin made the point pretty well the other day on "Morning Joe." He said, look, there are two Republican parties right now. There is the Republican Party at Washington, and then there's the Republican Party in the states, and the Republican Party in the states is doing much better. I think the state parties are more successful because they can accomplish more since they often control the statehouses in addition to the governorships, whereas the Republicans in Washington, D.C. only control one house of one branch of government. They simply can't get things done. They can't show the American people that their agenda is working.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Republican strategist Ron Christie, and you just heard journalist Matt Continetti. We're talking about rebranding the Republican Party. Since you mentioned 2016, let's talk about women, and let me take this to you, Ron. Can I read you something?

This is something that was mentioned in the summer meeting for the Republican Party recently, and this is Ann Stone, who is a Republican and pushing to get the National Women's History Museum built. She says, the messaging to women is really bad. There have been closed-door sessions where we've talked about how do we get the men to stop saying some of the things they're saying. It's usually out of ignorance. They don't understand what they're saying is highly insulting, which is really sad. Tell me, Ron, what do you think about the GOP's problem with women?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think Ms. Stone's remarks are largely correct. I understand the need to stand firm on certain social issues, but I don't think that we need to have white, older, Southern men out talking about abortion or rape or any of those issues that are doing more to alienate the potential voting population than they are to bring people to the GOP.

Politics is all about addition rather than subtraction, and while I think that a majority of the country is conservative and a number of people hold firm to these social beliefs based on their religious or their personal beliefs, I think constantly putting this in front of the voters as opposed to dealing with the economic issues, dealing with the debt and the deficit, and of course national security - I think those are the kitchen table issues that a majority of Americans and potential crossover voters are interested in hearing what the GOP's message is.

HEADLEE: And what do you think about this, Matt? Especially in light of - I've seen statistics that show that although the Republican Party runs a lot of female candidates, they're much less likely to win, especially in their primaries, than a female in the Democratic Party.

CONTINETTI: Well, I think the Democratic Party very effectively changed the social issues conversation in 2012 from, say, the pro-life/pro-choice fight, which has been the main fight on the social issues for 20 years, to really a fight over contraception and other secondary women's health issues. And this was the case when it started in actually the Republican primary when George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney in a Republican debate whether he supported the Griswold decision in 1965, which gave people a right, not to abortion, but to contraception. And if you've watched those Planned Parenthood ads and the Obama campaign ads that talked about Planned Parenthood funding, for example, those ads aren't about abortion.

They're about the other things - services that Planned Parenthood provides that most American women support. So the Democrats are very effective at doing that, and of course they were helped, as you point out, by stupid gaffes from a few prominent Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana, primarily. And so Republicans have to do two things, I think, if they're to avoid the trap that was set for them in 2012. The first thing they have to do is stop being stupid, and the second thing they have to do is turn the conversation back to the pro-choice/pro-life conversation, which is one where public opinion, including among women, is much more divided than I think we hear from the Democratic Party.

HEADLEE: Are you talking about concealing an opinion? - because it wasn't like Stephanopoulos was unfair to Mitt Romney. It was a fair question, I think. Are you talking about concealing their opinions on contraception...



CONTINETTI: I'm talking about discussing life issues and not talking about contraceptive issues.

CHRISTIE: And I have to say I agree with him here on this point, Celeste. I think that that set up a question by George Stephanopoulos was a trap. It's not a question of this so-called phony war on women that Democrats, I thought, were able to effectively utilize in the last election cycle. Instead, as Matt has pointed out, it's a question of being pro-life or pro-choice, rather than this phony war on contraception and the women's right to choose.

HEADLEE: There seems to be a real problem, though, with the supposed gaffes in the Republican Party. I mean, of course, Iowa Congressman Steve King has made a number of comments about undocumented immigrants. As you mentioned, there has been comments about rape that have come back. Maine's governor reportedly has said that President Obama quote, hates white people. So, Ron, what does the Republican Party do about this essential problem in terms of saying the wrong thing on record?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think anytime that you're in public life and you have the opportunity to stand before a microphone, even as we do, that you have to be very cognizant that not only are the people who are listening to you on that particular radio program, I mean, hear what you have to say, but that could potentially, via social media and the Internet, be broadcast to millions of people around the world and around the country. The fact of the matter is that the Republican Party needs to articulate a clear vision, why they need to be trusted, given the trust in government by their potential constituents, and allow people who are Democrats or Independents or moderates to join the party and to feel comfortable in voting for them. And as long as they continue with these gaffes and fail to articulate a clear message, I think that we're going to have some rough seas ahead.

HEADLEE: And what do you think, Matt, of this decision by the party that neither CNN nor NBC will be able to air the primary debates in 2016. Do you think that helps in the rebranding?

CONTINETTI: Well, I don't actually think the Republican Party needs to rebrand.

HEADLEE: Oh, really?

CONTINETTI: I'm not really concerned whether it helps with that.

HEADLEE: Your piece for the Washington Free Beacon, for your website, is "Be Afraid." But not about branding?

CONTINETTI: It had nothing to do with rebranding. If Republicans don't give their voters a reason to vote, then they will leave the stage open for Obama's voters. Republicans don't vote on the basis of what the media thinks the party should rebrand to. They vote because their politicians give them a reason to go out to the polls.

And for most Republicans in 2012, they didn't go out to the polls because Mitt Romney was out of touch. He seemed elitist, and his economic agenda was confined to upper-income tax cuts. So he didn't discuss abortion, actually. Obama discussed abortion far, far more than Mitt Romney. He certainly didn't discuss the issue of same-sex marriage. Again, that was Obama was setting the agenda on same-sex marriage. Romney gave Republican voters no reason to come to the polls, and in fact, down-ticket Republicans, like Akin, gave reasons for them to be ashamed...

HEADLEE: Todd Akin.

CONTINETTI: ...of being Republican.



HEADLEE: Ron, what do you think about that? Does the Republican Party need an image update?

CHRISTIE: Well, you know, I said it before, I'll say it again, Celeste. I think that politics is about addition rather than subtraction, and Republicans need to garner the support of a younger electorate. They need to garner support of an electorate that is comprised of more people of color, and they need to be, apparently - from what we've seen - a lot more accepting of people who are, as Matt just pointed out, of middle or lower income. The number of folks on food stamps has risen dramatically. The number of people in poverty in America has dramatically increased. We should be talking about those issues and saying we understand, we care, we empathize, we get it.

HEADLEE: Well, before we end here, if you were going to give the, Reince Priebus, Ron Christie, one change that he should make to help the GOP improve its public image, what would it be?

CHRISTIE: Stop focusing on the small balls. Stop focusing on sending a letter to NBC and CNN about a potential mini-series. Start communicating to the American people why we are a great party. Stop being petty.


CONTINETTI: They needed to resolve the basic problem from the 2012 exit poll, which was that, despite winning on most attributes, Romney lost to Obama overwhelmingly on the question of who cared for people like you. They need to show the American people that they care, and that means providing an economic agenda for low and middle-income workers, which they have not provided for decades.

HEADLEE: Matthew Continetti is editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon. And Ron Christie is former aide in the George W. Bush White House. He's now CEO of Christie Strategies. Thanks to both of you.

CONTINETTI: Thank you.

CHRISTIE: Thanks, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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