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Does The Grand Old Party Need Grand New Ideas?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TMM from NPR News. Later in the program, as we continue in this important season of religious observance for many people, we will speak with the dean of the Washington National Cathedral. It's one of the most prominent institutions in the nation's capital and the very Reverend Gary Hall will tell us why his church is supporting gay marriage and tighter gun control. That's our Faith Matters conversation. It's coming up later.

But first we want to talk politics. The Republican National Committee issued a report this week titled "The Growth and Opportunity Project." It's being called various things - an autopsy or a rebranding, depending on whom you ask. It looks at what went wrong in the 2012 elections when Republicans lost the race for the White House and seats in both houses of Congress.

We wanted to know whether this report ushers in a new day for the Grand Old Party so we want to speak with two people who've worked for Republican administrations, two of our regular analysts. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger with U.S. News and World Report. Ron Christie is a former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush.

He's now the CEO of Christie's Strategies. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

RON CHRISTIE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So before we talk about the future, I did want to spend just a couple of minutes on the past because this is the week that marked the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. And Ron Christie, you were with the George W. Bush administration when the war began and I just have to ask what your reflections are on this important anniversary when you reflect on the conversations we're having now, when you think over the past 10 years. You know, you have to ask was it worth it?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think at the time, and you remember 10 years ago there was a lot of uncertainty in the country and there was a sense that Iraq and Afghanistan had participated in the 9/11 attacks. And there was also this sense that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, an assessment not only held by the United States government, but our allies in Great Britain, Italy, and, you know, numerous other countries around the world.

But when you look back and you say that we've lost over 4,000 American men and women, we have thousands more who are injured, and Iraq remains an unstable force in the world, the question is not so much is it worth it for us but was it worth it for the world? Meaning why didn't the Iraqis stand up once they were liberated from a brutal dictator?

Why didn't other individuals and other countries in the region also stand up for this brand of democracy that Americans and allies helped usher in? So I have a mixed feeling and a mixed bag as we reflect 10 years later.

MARTIN: Do you - just very briefly, Ron, and I know that - I don't know that - you don't speak for both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush, but I did want to ask if, in conversations that I know you've had with them subsequently, would they do it again?

CHRISTIE: Well, it's very interesting. There was a documentary called "The World According to Dick Cheney" that came out at Sundance and the individual, the reporter, asked him would you do it all over again, and he said in a heartbeat. And you look back at President Bush's autobiography, "Decision Points," that he had written about some of the most important decisions that he'd made, and you read the chapter particularly relating to the invasion of the Middle East, and he had reservations and he had doubts now looking back.

So I think the president perhaps wouldn't have taken the nation to war but the vice president felt that the evidence was compelling. So it's very interesting, looking at how those two might react, looking back 10 years later.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary, you worked for the first President Bush, George H. W. Bush, and I think many people remember that you were with that administration during the first invasion of Iraq...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...back in 1991. And I'm just - I'm interested in your reflections. I know that people in the first Bush administration from the president on down generally don't comment upon the decisions of the son, but I am interested in your reflections on this important anniversary.

CARY: Yeah. It's very difficult because, you know, you don't want to put yourself in the position of the Commander-in-Chief where you don't know what intelligence they had and things like that. You don't want to second guess anybody. But when I was there for what was called the first Gulf War, Desert Storm, President Bush had told our allies and the U.N. that the mission was going to be end the occupation of Kuwait and to end the aggression.

And when that was accomplished after - I think it was only about a hundred hours before the revolutionary guard all surrendered - he said to stop the mission. It was done. It was 110,000 airstrikes and only 148 U.S. dead. Isn't that amazing now to look back on? But he knew that going into Bagdad to get Saddam Hussein was going to be very, very difficult. And he got criticized for that later.

MARTIN: He was. He was criticized for...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...stopping too soon. But I'm interested in your view now of whether subsequent events vindicate his decision.

CARY: Yeah. I think 9/11 changed everything. And I think the son would've stuck with his father's policy, probably, of not going after Saddam Hussein, but once 9/11 happened I think that changed everything. Peggy Noonan wrote a great column in today's Wall Street Journal about the cost to the Republican Party of the Iraqi War. And she basically says, you know, there used to be this reluctant use of American power and instead the Republican Party morphed into sort of the party of unfunded wars.

And what a shame that is.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with two former members of two different Republican administrations. Mary Kate Cary was a speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. Ron Christie was an assistant to the 43rd president, George W. Bush. Let's talk about the future now. The Republican National Committee released this report. As we said, it was called "The Growth and Opportunity Project." It's all about how the party can do better in the next round of elections.

I just want to read a little bit from the introduction. It says: And our core Republicans have comfortably remained the party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next. Ronald Reagan, as a Republican hero and role model who was first elected 33 years ago, meaning no one under the age of 51 today was old enough to vote for Reagan when he first ran to president. Our party knows how to appeal to older voters but we've lost our way with younger ones.

We sound increasingly out of touch. Ron Christie, you know, these are actually some pretty powerful words, especially coming as an internal critique. I mean, this is the kind of thing you expect Democratic pundits to say. Ron, what are your thoughts about the report in totality? Do you think that they make some important points? And do you feel people in the party re going to follow these?

CHRISTIE: Well, you know, I have a mixed bag about this. I read the report and I read the introduction that you just read there, and I think that the commentary is true. But then you go to the conclusion section of the report and you say, well, OK, we have all this handwringing. Oh, we need to reach out to young people. Well, of course we do. Well, we need to be more appealing to people of color. Well, of course we do.

So now we're going to set up these different taskforces. Oh, we're going to have the African-American outreach, Hispanic outreach. I mean, this sounds more like tokenism to me. Why don't we focus on the issues that should appeal to Americans regardless of the color of their skin? Why don't we get smarter about using social media? Why don't we, frankly, adapt on the fly as opposed to having this public self-flagellation that I think if I were a Democrat, I would be laughing at us.

Frankly, I think it was a little over the top and a little unnecessary. This should have been an internal process and not one where we're going to take ourselves to task. No, I don't think so.

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

CARY: Yeah, I have to agree with you, Ron. This is, you know, happy days are here again for the Democrats after C-PAC and now this. I feel like we are just handing them the rope, you know. But in general, my take on the report, Michel, was that - I agree. It's a mixed bag. There was way too much, for me, ground game tactics, statistics, operations, precinct type of stuff and not enough about the battle of idea.

This was more the plot of "Money Ball" than it was "Field of Dreams." I wanted to hear, you know, if you build it they will come is what I wanted to read.

MARTIN: Well, what are you saying, Mary Kate? That it's all tactics and no...

CARY: Yeah. Not big picture. There's no big picture.

MARTIN: But the question now is, is this - were these tactical and messaging failures or are these policy failures? I mean, the question is - I know you also wrote another column this week about Rob Portman and his reversal on same-sex marriage after his own son came out to him as gay.

CARY: Right. Right.

MARTIN: And you're saying that's a policy issue.

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So are you saying the Republicans are mainly wrong on policy or are they mainly wrong on messaging and tactics?

CARY: Well, this particular report addresses the messaging very, very briefly. And the only policies they touch on are immigration and gay rights.

CHRISTIE: Mmm-hmm.

CARY: And to me, I wanted to hear more - there was, you know, a page or two about what's going on with the governors. And to me that's where all the action is in the Republican Party. Eight out of 10 of the lowest unemployment rates in the country are in states run by Republican governors. And that's a great story.

You know, there's all kinds of stuff going on with public schools and regulations and infrastructure in the states and that's where I think the economic growth is going to come from and that's - if I was the RNC, I'd have those governors out front and center.

I don't think your average American can name a Democratic governor. Maybe Jerry Brown, but he's known for tax hikes. Maybe Andrew Cuomo, but he's known for gun control.

MARTIN: John Hickenlooper, 'cause he's got such a great name and he used to be a brewmaster. He was a micro-brewer...

CARY: All right.

MARTIN: ...which is so fabulous that I just felt I needed to mention that.

CARY: But, you know, we've got a deep bench and they don't and I think that's where the strength of the party lies, is...

MARTIN: Ron Christie?

CARY: ...outside of Washington.

MARTIN: Forgive me. Ron Christie, so what's the issue? Is the issue messaging or is the issue policies that need to be rethought?

CHRISTIE: No, it's messaging. And Mary Kate is spot on right here. You have 30 out of the 50 governors in the United States who are Republicans. What are they doing? They have a constitutionally mandated balanced budget, so they're balancing their budgets. They are lowering taxes. They are providing for infrastructure. They're providing for education, all the bread and butter issues that Americans care about, but - and Mary Kate's right. If I were the RNC - and thank goodness I'm not - I would be stressing everything that's going on in these ecosystems that are controlled by Republicans around the country and say we can reduce the tax burden, we can strengthen our education system, and frankly, we can have good governance rather than this cesspool that has become Washington, D.C.

MARTIN: But why do you say thank goodness you're not? Why do you say that?

CHRISTIE: You know, I just...

MARTIN: I mean, forgive me, forgive me for pointing this out for people who can't see. As an African-American man, and Mary Kate, yourself as a woman, you're two - you represent, and I understand...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...that you don't necessarily see yourselves this way, but you represent, if it's OK that I'm saying this, two of groups that the party says that they have failed in addressing and speaking to properly. So Ron Christie - so why do you say, you know, thank goodness you're not? Why?

CHRISTIE: Because I think so much of the reflection of the building that is the Republican National Committee on 1st Street Southeast is emblematic of Washington, D.C.-think. Oh, if only we get the messaging right. If only we this. And it goes back to what Mary Kate said. The laboratories for success are the governorships and what the GOP are actually doing by leading around the country. They would be far better advised, Reince Priebus, Mr. Chairman of the RNC, to take a page out of what is working successfully policy-wise in the states and using the messaging that our governors are doing in the states for folks who continually are getting reelected, as opposed to this hammering and this self-flagellation that they seem to be participating in.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, very briefly.

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: If you would. I can't help but point out that Republican governors have also been successful in working across the aisle, which is something that George W. Bush did when he was governor of Texas...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...and had very warm relationships...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...which members of the national party don't seem to have.

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So go ahead.

CARY: Well, if you drill down to the section on outreach to women, two things jumped out at me. This sentence. Republicans need to make a better effort at listening to female voters, directing their policy proposals at what they learn from women. They don't say what the policy should be. They just say we need to listen to them and come up with some policies. Well, there's sort of a gaping hole there of what that means.

And the other is, there is absolutely no mention of a first female Republican Party chair - nowhere in here, and that is absolutely what we need next, I think, is to have a female.

MARTIN: All right. Well, more to come. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's currently a columnist and blogger with U.S. News and World Report, looking for an RNC chair. I think she might be available. Ron Christie is a former assistant to President...

CARY: I nominate Ron.

MARTIN: ...George W. Bush. He's CEO of Christie Strategies. Ron was in New York, Mary Kate in Washington. Thank you both so much.

CARY: Thanks.

CHRISTIE: (Unintelligible) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.