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March 29, 2015

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Can the GOP escape its bubble?

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Here we go again. Whenever I try to offer a little helpful advice to Republican leaders, I have grown accustomed to hearing from some cranky conservative or two who blow me off, saying they’re “not about to take advice from a liberal like you” — or words to that effect.

I am inclined to respond like the Jedi master Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”: “That is why you fail.”

After losing the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, the Grand Old Party should be painfully aware of its need to step outside of the conservative bubble and talk to people who are not already voting Republican.

You could hear that message as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a rising national political star, told the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting that “We must stop being the stupid party” and “insulting the intelligence of voters.”

He also called for fewer “stupid and bizarre” comments. I presume he was talking about such gaffes as failed Senate candidate Todd Akin’s campaign-sinking comments about “legitimate rape.” If you want to win people’s votes, don’t insult them.

By now, no one should have to urge Republicans to reach out to Hispanics and other minorities. Mitt Romney’s election night surprise makes the case.

He won non-Hispanic white voters, no problem. But he lost other major demographic groups. Had he only kept the same 42 percent of the Hispanic vote that President George W. Bush won eight years earlier, for example, Romney’s campaign could have set off his victory fireworks in Boston. Instead, he won only 29 percent and, according to reports, had to hastily cobble together a concession speech he had not expected to give.

With the looming possibility of permanent minority status, Republicans face a dilemma: How do they expand their base without alienating the hard-core, change-resistant conservatives who already are in it?

I think they can take valuable lessons from two examples. One is the Democratic Party’s experiences with the same dilemma after George McGovern’s catastrophic 49-state loss as the deeply divided party’s nominee in 1972. Jimmy Carter’s Southern centrism won him a term in 1976 in the aftermath of Watergate. But it took until Bill Clinton’s rise in 1992 for the party’s base to crave victory enough to put up with a new centrism, despite grumblings from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s wing.

After two losses to Obama, maybe it’s time for Republican moderates to reassert themselves and tell their right-wing base that, hey, the political center may not be sexy but it’s better than oblivion.

My other example comes from Republicans at the state and local level who have succeeded in winning big support from blacks and Hispanics the old-fashioned way, by finding out what the voters want and helping them to get it.

“The best approach for Republicans to take is not through identity politics,” Bob Woodson, founding head of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise — and a prominent black Republican — told me. “If you believe in conservative principles, as I do, then you must explain to people why those principles will bring a better outcome than the existing liberal programs.”

Woodson offered as examples of racial-ethnic crossover success former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Years before he ran for mayor, Riordan, a successful businessman, had deep community involvement that included purchasing a new building and raising funds for PUENTE Learning Center in the city’s Hispanic community.

Goldsmith worked with local minority communities to make Indianapolis a national model for market-driven urban redevelopment during his two terms in the 1990s. Huckabee’s minority outreach was so successful that he was re-elected with 48 percent of the black vote.

“Seek a relationship that can blossom into a partnership,” Woodson advised. “You can’t just be strongly against something. You must give a vision of what it is possible to accomplish through conservative means.”

Could such a relationship produce a new rising national GOP star? Republicans always have been a resourceful party. If I may paraphrase what Winston Churchill once said about Americans, I believe Republicans will do the right thing, after all the other possibilities have been exhausted.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He writes from Washington.

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  1. You're wrong Mr. Page. The GOP has the right message, they lack at least so far the right messenger. Let me remind you, Romney as flawed and beat up a candidate as he was, lost by 400,000 plus votes in 4 swing states in a universe of 120 million votes. Plus, republicans are in 30 State Houses as Governors and control 25 State legislatures. Not to mention that with one exception, republicans have had control of the Peoples' House of Representatives for the last 20 years and still. That's not a party in a bubble, that's a party in need of a leader.