The Commercial Appeal

GOP: Rebrand or change?


WASHINGTON — Rebranding is trendy in the Republican Party.

Rep. Eric Cantor gave a major speech on Tuesday to advance the effort. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wants the GOP to stop being the “stupid party.” Karl Rove is setting up a PAC to defeat right-wing crazies who cost the party Senate seats.

But there’s a big difference between rebranding — this implies the product is fine but needs to be sold better — and pursuing a different approach to governing. Here’s an early action report.

The good news: Some Republican­s have decided the party moved too far to the right and are backing off long-standing positions on tax increases, guns and immigratio­n. Their new flexibilit­y, combined with President Barack Obama’s new postelecti­on aggressive­ness, is producing a quiet revolution in Washington. The place is becoming less dysfunctio­nal.

Congress has already passed a substantia­l tax increase, Republican­s avoided a debt ceiling fight, and the ice is breaking on guns and immigratio­n.

The mixed news: A lot of the rebranding efforts are superficia­l yet nonetheles­s reflect an awareness that the party has been asking the wrong questions, talking about the wrong issues and limiting the range of voters it’s been addressing.

This is why Cantor’s speech was more important than the policies he outlined, which were primarily conservati­ve retreads. His interventi­on proved that Obama and progressiv­es are changing the terms of the debate, much as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.

Cantor wasn’t making the case for smaller government or tax cuts for the “job creators.” He was asking what government could do for the middle class — “to provide relief to so many millions of Americans who just want their life to work again.”

No wonder Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the Democrats’ most subtle strategist­s, jumped at the chance to praise Cantor for taking “the first step towards finding common ground in agreeing on the problem you are trying to solve.” If the debate is about who will be nicer to business or who will cut taxes, Republican­s win. What Schumer understand­s is that if the issue is providing relief for the middle class (and for workers, immigrants and low-income children), Republican­s are competing over questions on which progressiv­es have the advantage.

The bad news: In some states where Republican­s control all the levers of power, they are rushing ahead with astonishin­gly right-wing programs to eviscerate government while shifting the tax burden toward the middle class and the poor and away from the wealthy. In trying to build Koch Brothers’ dystopias, they are turning states in laboratori­es of reaction.

As Neil King Jr. and Mark Peters reported in a Wall Street Journal article on the “Red State model,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has slashed both income taxes and spending. This drew fire from moderate and moderately conservati­ve Republican legislator­s, whom he then helped purge in primaries. Jindal is talking about ending Louisiana’s personal and corporate income taxes and replacing the revenue with sales tax increases — a stunningly naked transfer of resources from the poor and the middle class to the rich.

This deeply anti-majoritari­an, anti-populist approach explains the really bad news: Some Republican­s show signs of no longer worrying about winning majorities at all. They have already put in place a gerrymande­r that has created a now-misnamed House of Representa­tives since it’s unrepresen­tative of how voters cast their ballots in congressio­nal races last fall. Some are trying to rig the Electoral College in a way that would have let Mitt Romney win the presidency even as he lost by just under 5 million popular votes.

And they are willing to use the Senate’s arcane rules and right-wing courts in tandem to foil the policy wishes of a majority of Congress and the president — witness the precedent-less U.S. Court of Appeals ruling voiding Obama’s recess appointmen­ts to the National Labor Relations Board. The president took this course because intransige­nt Republican senators blocked the nomination­s. There should be a greater outcry against such an anti-democratic power play.

What’s the overall balance sheet? Level Republican heads seem to be pushing against the Electoral College rigging effort. The “Red State model” is likely to take hold in only a few states — and may provoke a backlash. The larger lesson may be the one Cantor offered: Republican­s are slowly realizing that the nation’s priorities are not the GOP’s traditiona­l priorities. If Republican­s really do start asking better questions, they will come up with better — and less extreme — answers. Contact E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post Writers Group at

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