A smiling Marco Rubio shakes hands with Hillary Clinton after a sharp and personable performance in the most recent presidential debate. In the spin room, Bobby Jindal touts Rubio’s support for immigration reform and Chris Christie assures the base that a Rubio White House would be tough on crime while making sensible criminal justice reforms. On Fox News the next morning, vice presidential nominee Lindsey Graham chats about his plan to defeat ISIS without alienating American Muslims. Meg Whitman tweets her support. Donald Trump hasn’t been seen for months.
It’s three weeks till the 2016 election, and this is the alternate universe to which Reince Priebus escapes when it all gets to be too much. His party’s actual sleazeball of a nominee, who somehow hasn’t quit after a tape emerged of him bragging about sexual assault, is now publicly feuding with the Speaker of the House and many other prominent Republicans, so the RNC chairman must have been talking about some other reality when he said, “Everything is on course,” right?
At times like these, Priebus must think wistfully of the Growth & Opportunity Project, the “autopsy” he commissioned after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election. The report, delivered in 2013, prescribed a new path for the GOP, which Priebus hoped would lead to a new era of inclusivity. Today, it reads like an alternative history, a lament for the road not taken.
The 97-page document openly stated the party’s biggest problem: it could easily appeal to older voters and white men, but most other groups tended to believe that “the GOP does not care about them.”
“Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents,” the report says, noting that nobody under the age of 51 had been eligible to vote when Ronald Reagan first ran for President. “We sound increasingly out of touch.”
Stances like opposition to gay marriage, it said, were non-starters with demographics the party needed to win. Likewise, immigration reform and a more welcoming tone would be required if Republicans ever hoped to make headway with Hispanic voters:
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”
Remember, in 2013 “self-deportation” was still the craziest thing someone wishing to be taken seriously could propose regarding immigration. It was a simpler time.
Similarly, the report noted, young women felt “ignored” by the party, and Republicans had essentially stopped trying to engage African Americans. It also suggested Republicans “blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance” in order to move past the stereotypes that dogged the Romney campaign.
Using data and interviews, the report’s authors confirmed what most people already knew: The old and the white were easily convinced to vote Republican, but most others felt something between indifference and victimization. The Democrats were better-organized and had a more positive message, and the Republicans would have to present a very different face in 2016.
What’s crazy, looking back, is how possible that seemed. Without coming out and saying they would make good presidential candidates, the Growth & Opportunity Project noted that national figures like Rubio, Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Paul Ryan were already changing public perceptions of the party. Priebus could scarcely have asked for a better crop of young talent with which to challenge the stereotype of the old, white, male Republican. Republicans happily pointed out that they were younger and more diverse than the Democrats, at least on the senatorial and gubernatorial levels.
In 2014, the investigators performed a one-year checkup and announced that, under Priebus’ leadership, the party was already making improvements. The next year, leaked emails recently revealed, Democrats were terrified that Rubio would become the next Obama. So what happened?
To an extent, the answer lies in the Growth & Opportunity Project’s report itself. The headline was “Republicans Should Be Nice To Women And Minorities,” but some of the investigation’s less-obvious criticisms had to do with primary reform and party organization. It criticized the Republican ground game and digital presence and emphasized the need for the RNC to control the process that would determine its next nominee. As he laid out his vision for reforming the party, Priebus said, “I believe that No. 1, we have to control the debates.”
We all know how that went.
Trump began his campaign by making Hispanic Americans (and many others) feel unwelcome, took publicly disrespecting women to new heights, and added his own bombastic, narcissistic notes to the boring businessman brew that doomed Romney. This was exactly what the RNC had been determined to avoid, but it turned out that The Onion may have better understood the Republican base, announcing after Obama’s re-election that a “shrieking, white-hot sphere of pure rage” was the GOP frontrunner for 2016. Trump charted the opposite of the Growth & Opportunity Project’s course, and it won him the nomination.
The Billy Bush tape wasn’t exactly a surprise—we were all familiar with Trump’s track record and “I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture” vibe. The real surprise is how many people who knew better had been supporting him up until the tape’s release, and how many still are.
Priebus dedicated a lot of time, energy, and RNC resources to reshaping the party in the wake of Romney’s loss. The leadership knew what changes were necessary and spelled them out for the rest of the party. When push came to shove and the voters, along with many Republican officeholders, rejected the change, Priebus, Ryan, and others put aside the hard work they knew was necessary and let the party slip into a miasma of xenophobia, misogyny, and spray tan. When they conduct the autopsy this time around, they may claim it was impossible to modernize the GOP, but they can’t say they weren’t aware of the problem.