John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Rebranding the GOP

Posted on November 20, 2012

This originally appeared in The Hill:

Passing immigration reform would be a small start to expanding the base of the Republican Party, and with Barack Obama in the White House and the Democrats controlling the Senate, it would necessarily be a bipartisan accomplishment.

Everybody else has offered an opinion as to how the Republican Party can become more diverse, so I thought I would throw in my two cents. The principal problem facing the GOP is not philosophical. We don’t have to become more moderate or more conservative, labels I find meaningless in this era of rapid change. Nor is it issue-based. Issues come and go; problems arise and then are solved.

No, the biggest impediment to growth facing the Republican Party is our culture. We simply aren’t that inclusive a party. You go to the party conventions and you can see it with your own eyes. In Tampa, as in Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego and Houston (all the Republican conventions I have been to), Republican men dress in the navy-blue blazers and the women all dress in the same kind of sundress. They look like Republicans. And there is subtle cultural pressure to dress the same way. At the Democratic conventions I have attended, you can see pretty much anything and everything.

Now, it might seem trivial to focus on attire to differentiate between the parties. I am not suggesting that Republicans get rid of their dress code as an easy way to expand the party. But I do think that culture plays a huge role in politics. And we should think about our Republican culture and how we can remake it so that we can remake the party.

Here are a few ways to appeal to those ethnic groups that have historically looked askance at the Republican Party:

  • Pray with them: The political parties now divide up philosophically between a secular Democratic Party and religious Republican Party, except for one glaring fact. Religiously inclined African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans all still overwhelmingly vote with the Democrats. Religious white conservatives who make up the political base of the Republican Party should take note. If you want to be a member of a political party, you better start inviting a more diverse audience to pray with you on Sunday.

  • Work with them: Republicans are reflexively against affirmative action, and as a government policy I completely agree with that position. But the truth is that the more minorities have a chance to make their way up the economic ladder, the more they have a vested interest in promoting Republican economic values. It is often noted that Hispanics and Asians start small businesses, a lot of them. A Republican Party that works with those small businesses to promote a common-sense reform agenda will do much better getting their votes.

  • Drink with them: When FDR ended Prohibition, he secured the votes of Catholics for a generation. Prohibition is long since behind us, but understanding the cultural war that helped to pass it in the first place and then helped to repeal it would go a long way to bridging the gap between the GOP and minority groups.

  • Golf with them: Or play soccer. Or otherwise engage with minority groups. Republicans all too often act as if their political party were a private country club, where only selected members are invited to play. Republicans should invite everybody to play with them.

  • Stick up for them: We live in an era of great cultural sensitivity. Minority groups get code words. They get the same emails that make racist jokes that we all get. But they don’t think those jokes are funny, because they aren’t funny. Racist humor isn’t funny, and when a talk show host thinks he is being funny making racist jokes, Republican leaders should stick up for decency and for the offended group. I don’t mean imposing political correctness, but we live in a diverse country, and this only works if we are civil to one another.

Republicans don’t have a philosophical problem. There is plenty of room in this country for both a conservative and a liberal party. But they do have a cultural problem. They have to translate their conservative message to appeal to all cultures in this country, not just old white men.