RNC “Autopsy:” Less Than Meets the Eye

I’d say the debate over the greater meaning, if any, of the Republican National Committee’s “2012 autopsy” report–more formally the report of its Growth and Opportunity Project–is best summed up by a strongly worded argument from Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith (noting particularly the involvement of Ari Fleischer) that it represents the return of the Bush/Rove “compassionate conservative” marketing of the GOP:

And at its core, the report is a glimpse of the party Karl Rove and George W. Bush, assisted by figures like Fleischer and Gerson, sought to create starting in the late 1990s. This was the party in which George W. Bush was elected, but one whose message shifted dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001. From there, Bush ran almost exclusively as a national security president, and by the time he began pitching elements of Social Security privatization in his second term, the move was a non-sequitur and came with none of the halo of compassion of the earlier Bush years.

So if Smith is right, the RNC is trying to recreate a branding device that did not outlive the first year of the Bush presidency, and was decisively repudiated by the beginning of Bush’s second term. Confusing the picture even more, Smith identifies as the last avatar of “compassionate conservatism” one Mike Huckabee, whose most heretical step during his 2008 presidential campaign was to dare criticize the economy being presided over by the Bush administration.

Already the center of gravity of the discussion among Republicans among themselves is shifting from the high ground of ideology to the self-interested politics of the presidential nominating process. Already “sources close to” Rick Santorum and Rand Paul are blasting the report’s recommendations of fewer debates, earlier nominating contests, and less reliance on caucuses as an “establishment” attack on the Right, on poorly funded candidates, or even (God forbid!) on Iowa! This is mostly Kabuki: the report does not challenge the status of the “early states” (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) and does not get into sanctions for non-compliance with theorectical calendar changes. It also includes a pretty central self-contradiction (as noted by Josh Putnam): many states go “late” on the calendar to synch their presidential primaries with down-ballot primaries, which boosts turnout and reduces additional costs (presumably good things). Going “early” could mean more, not less, low-turnout caucuses or conventions dominated by ideologues.

All the procedural stuff will slowly play itself out over the next couple of years; nothing serious will happen right away. So again: the report is mainly a way to signal the party is “aware” it has issues, with action items focusing on “reforms” that won’t be seriously considered until all this rebranding talk has faded to a distant memory, or less.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.