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Ponnuru: Priebus pushing for a Republican reality check

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Some Republicans haven’t gotten to the first step: The one where you admit there’s a problem. In a roundup of reactions to the 2012 presidential election by the magazine Commentary, for example, conservative writer Wilfred McClay says Republican worriers are “wildly overwrought” because the 2012 election was “close.”

So it counts as a good sign that the chairman of the Republican National Committee has a different perspective.

“We haven’t won a decisive presidential election in 24 years,” says Reince Priebus – the first name is short for Reinhold – in his office. George H.W. Bush’s election in 1988, he points out, was the last time Republicans carried California, New Jersey, Illinois or Pennsylvania. (He could have accurately added another large state, Michigan.) With so many electoral votes off-limits, Republicans have to carry almost every tossup state to win.

Priebus isn’t the man to save the party from shrinking to irrelevance – that will take a presidential candidate – but Republicans are generally happy with the job he has done, even in a season of gloom. They are still grateful that he is not Michael Steele, the man he replaced in January 2011. Priebus doesn’t get in the news for saying dumb things, which was a weekly occurrence under his predecessor.

After Steele’s tenure, the Republican National Committee had to do some rebuilding, especially in regaining the confidence of major donors. Although it was $24 million in the red when Priebus took over, it now has $7 million in the bank.

He now wants to spend a chunk of that money expanding the party’s infrastructure. The main tactical lesson Priebus draws from the 2012 election is that “we’ve entered a world of permanent politics.” By this he means that it isn’t enough for parties to contact voters in the months before elections. They have to maintain a constant presence in every community they are trying to reach, as President Barack Obama and the Democrats did.

In particular, Republicans have to do better with “low propensity voters.” In Wisconsin, where Priebus was a successful state party chairman before coming to Washington, 550,000 more people voted in the presidential election than had voted a few months earlier in an election to determine whether Republican Gov. Scott Walker would be recalled. Republicans won the earlier race but lost the second (and also lost a Senate seat they thought they had a chance at).

Priebus worries that if they don’t improve their showing among these infrequent voters, they might find themselves in a trap where they do well in low-turnout midterms and then become overconfident about presidential elections.

He doesn’t believe that getting on-the-fence voters to choose Republican candidates, and then actually vote, is primarily a matter of improving the party’s use of social science and technology. What it mostly requires, he says, is a new mindset from Republicans: “We’ve divorced ourselves from the culture.” It’s “very harmful” when Republicans make fun of Obama for going on “The View” instead of understanding how it helps him make his case.

Priebus also thinks his party has taken the wrong approach to the issues, not least by letting spending cuts crowd out other parts of a conservative agenda. “It turns out that people like sugar more than they like the dentist,” he says. At Republican gatherings, “we can’t just have one person more mad than the next about the deficit and the debt. It’s not good enough to win the math argument.”

Although he acknowledges that Republicans need to make inroads among groups that don’t vote for them, he also thinks the party can do more to “run the score up” among groups that do. He mentions veterans, Mormons and churchgoing Catholics.

Priebus also wants to change the process that Republicans use to pick their presidential nominees. He wants a shorter primary calendar, and fewer media-sponsored debates. Those reforms would help front-runners and hurt insurgents, which is presumably the point: less camera time for hopeless candidates. One idea under consideration is to reduce candidates’ delegate hauls if they participate in debates the party hasn’t approved. That proposal could lead to yet another tea party-versus-establishment fracas.

Another part of Priebus’s project won’t face much resistance, he thinks: Both grassroots supporters and political donors want the party to be more engaged in the years before elections. Improved turnout from Republican-leaning voters isn’t what the party most needs. The state that gave Obama his 270th electoral vote, Colorado, went for him by 5.4 percentage points. It’s implausible that a better get-out-the-vote operation can make up that shortfall. The party needs a new agenda, and Priebus seems willing to take a back seat to other Republicans on questions of policy.

What Priebus is doing, though, might make a difference in close races. It’s up to the party’s candidates to make them close in the first place.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.

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