Now that one month has past since the GOP’s lopsided loss -- in what should have been an easy White House victory given America’s disastrous economic times and fading influence abroad -- Republicans must come up with an action plan to fix what went wrong. And it must be done fast.
As a career military veteran, a key phrase I heard in leadership schools was “you can’t expect good people to succeed in a lousy organization.” When I became part of a presidential campaign this year, I experienced a nomination process that is “a lousy organization.” Getting that piece right is essential if the GOP wants to win the White House in 2016 and beyond.
Though most pundits rightly identified key factors in Gov. Mitt Romney’s 332-206 electoral defeat -- overly harsh positions on immigration reform which alienated Hispanic voters, and guilt-by-association for inexcusable remarks made by Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock on rape and abortion, there has been virtually no discussion on specific steps prevent a repeat in 2016.
So here are three recommendations to consider today:
First, the GOP must take on the “elephant in the room,” and that’s the Iowa Caucus.
Since 1972 it’s been the first nomination contest for president, and has increasingly set the tone for who gets to the general election. As the media have been reporting, there are only 3 tickets out of Iowa due to the nationwide perception of being a frontrunner. This translates into enormous amount of effort to win the Hawkeye State. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani skipped it altogether in 2008 -- and that decision crippled his campaign.
As Iowa is a caucus and not a primary, relatively few voters decide the outcome – just a couple hundred thousand out of over 3 million people. And since they consist of town hall meetings in the middle of winter, you get the most fired up folks. This is how we ended up with Barack Obama in the White House, as Move On.org types beat the Clinton-machine democratic establishment in 2008, setting the tone nationwide.
For Republicans in Iowa, most caucus participants are ardent social conservatives who are committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, opposed to gay marriage, and anti-immigration.
Thus in order to win, place or show in Iowa campaigns must run to the right on these issues -- and away from an increasingly centrist America.
Which helps explain why extreme candidates with no real shot at becoming president like Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sen. Rick Santorum won the Iowa Straw Poll and Iowa Caucus respectively, despite long track records of shocking comments that drove moderates and independents away.
And although Sen. Santorum technically won the caucus this year, barely edging out both Gov. Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, he did so only after visiting all 99 counties -- proving not much other than his commitment to connecting with folks who share his far right-wing social views.
Though appealing to the Republican base worked well in decades past, that base is shrinking and the country is looking more diverse, more like California, every day.
In planning for 2016, GOP leaders should go back to the drawing board. Insisting Iowa move their caucus to the 4th contest or later, after primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida would be a great start. This would reduce the impact of dwindling social conservatives on the rest of the country.
Failing that, the next crop of serious GOP presidential candidates could all agree just to skip Iowa, thus easing tough rhetoric on abortion and immigration off the table.
Second, there must be a moratorium on pledges. There are literally hundreds of pledges, surveys and questionnaires that advocacy groups force on candidates, placing them into inescapable little boxes on everything from fetal-pain bills to no tax increases. Failure to sign these pledges incurs the wrath of its sponsors, with accompanying attempts to damage candidates who don’t play along.
Having worked in the think tank and foundation world for a few years now since leaving the Pentagon, I see pledges as a mix of ideology and fund raising gimmick to show off to donors. GOP leaders should work to ban pledges, and if they can’t, campaign managers should agree to collectively take a pass.
Finally, the GOP Convention must start looking more like America. As well run as it was, the lack of diversity played into the “Occupy Movement” and Democrat narrative that Republicans are for rich, white people. It’s got to start at the grassroots level, with state party leaders increasing the numbers of Latinos, Blacks, Asians and other ethnic backgrounds among their delegations.
And as bad as Republicans feel with another 4 years of Barack Obama in charge, they’ll feel even worse with a President Joe Biden or President Hillary Clinton to follow in 2016. Time to get to work.