John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Rebuilding the GOP

Posted on June 2, 2009
(This orignally appeared in The Politico)

John McCain may still win this election, but if he does, it won’t be because he is a Republican. It will be because he is John McCain. 

The Republican brand is in need of a dramatic overhaul.

From the dizzying heights of 2004, when the GOP ran everything, to this moment in history, when they are in real danger of being able to run only their own mouths, the decline has been spectacular and depressing — especially for someone like me, who has long toiled in the Republican vineyards. 

After this election, congressional Republicans and Bush White House loyalists will continue pointing fingers at one another, and they will both be right. Conservatives will say we need to be more conservative, moderates will say we need to be more moderate, Southerners will say we need to be more Southern, Northerners will say we need to be more Northern. Some will say we need to be more like Ronald Reagan, others will say we need to be like Teddy Roosevelt, and still others will say we need to be like Abraham Lincoln.

East Coast intellectuals will say the party needs to get smarter, while prairie populists will say we need to get closer to the people. 

Everyone will say that everyone else is to blame, and of course, they are all correct. Everybody who is a Republican is to blame, because when the party loses, we all lose and we all are at fault.

So once we go through the expected bloodletting, where do we go as a party? 

Here are some ideas:

1) Find the right chairman (or woman) to head the Republican National Committee. Haley Barbour was the best chairman this party ever had. Bring him back. If he doesn’t want to do it, find somebody like him. Barbour combined great political instincts, a great television presence, an ability to raise money and an intuitive understanding of policy. The RNC needs somebody like him to help bring the party together. 

2) Listen to the American people: Republicans need to take off their ideological blinders and conduct a series of town hall meetings, virtual and otherwise, to find out what the citizens of this nation want and expect from their government. After a long election year, the politicians have done a lot of talking. It is time for them to do some real listening.

3) Invigorate the think tanks. The GOP used to be the party of ideas, and think tanks were the place it got them. Something happened on the way to the majority, however, and the connection between think tanks — such as Heritage, CATO and the American Enterprise Institute — and Republican public policy seemed to fade away. When Reagan was president, those links were strong and the ideas were so good, they helped him become the great president that he was. It is time to go back to the drawing board, and there is no better place to do that than in the think tanks. 

4) Coordinate. The last time we were in this predicament, Bob Michel and Bob Dole, two old war horses, knew that they had to learn some new tricks while they were in the minority. The year was 1993, and Bill Clinton was the next president. So they coordinated with each other, with Haley Barbour, who was RNC chairman at the time, and especially with Republican governors such as Tommy Thompson and John Engler. It was Thompson and Engler who did the first welfare reforms, and their success served as a model for the welfare reform that ultimately was signed into law by Clinton. National coordination takes a lot of hard work, but it is worth it in the long run.

5) Invest in the future. Republicans need to build a farm team of political leaders. They need to invest in human capital. They have relied way too much on the so-called “self-funders” who may be willing to invest millions in their own race but have no idea how to win elections or, more importantly, how to govern. Finding and cultivating talent is extraordinarily important to our future as a party. We should have an active program that helps us find that talent on college campuses, on congressional staffs, in local government and in any other place where we can recruit smart kids who want to make a difference. 

6) Reinvent the modern campaign. Win or lose, Barack Obama has revolutionized the modern campaign. We need to learn from him how he did it. We need to learn about “for us by us” marketing. We need to learn how he fused community activism with the Internet to build an impressive organization. We need to learn how he used these techniques to raise almost $1 billion. And we need to learn what we did wrong and what techniques to retire in the next go-around. Isn’t about time we stopped using those stupid robocalls? I know. Just a suggestion.

7) Adopt a 50-state strategy. Everybody laughed when Howard Dean said he was going to make the Democratic Party competitive in all 50 states. Nobody is laughing now. The fact is that Republicans are becoming dinosaurs in too many states, especially north of the Mason-Dixon line. We have become a regional party, and the bad news is that we are even losing ground in that one region. Having a truly national strategy will pull us back from the extremes and make us a more competitive party in the future. 

8) Develop a coherent media strategy. It is not good enough to simply complain about NBC, The New York Times and the national media in general. We have to do something about it. We have to invest resources into learning all we can about communicating in the modern age. We need a strategy to get after the editors and publishers and television executives so they report fairly on the news. We have to keep after them to make them change their advocacy journalism, or we have to find our own outlets to get the right message out. We cannot continue to allow them to be a cheerleader for the left. We have to do something about it. 

9) Simplify to unify. As we pull together our national agenda, we need to remember that simplifying our agenda to basic core principles is better than trying to give each region or each interest group its own little goodies. Republicans started losing when they tried to play special interest politics. We can simplify and unify by agreeing to a certain process for resolving conflicts, and then embracing basic, unifying values (a strong America, a smaller, smarter government, and an undying belief in the Constitution) that will help guide our party for the future. 

We have been in this kind of predicament before, and it is not pretty. But with the right leadership, the proper process, the correct strategy and the kind of humility that can only come from getting your butt kicked in an election, the Republican Party can rise again. And even if John McCain pulls out this election, he should take many of these steps. A crippled GOP does nothing for McCain if he is president. The Republican Party must renew and rebuild itself, or face a long, cold time in the wilderness.

Subscribe to the Feehery Theory Newsletter, exclusively on Substack.
Learn More