Ned Barnett

The GOP should reach out

January 26, 2013 

The email asked for a discussion. It was from a reader responding to our editorial about House Republicans threatening another standoff over the debt ceiling. The editorial was headlined “The party of no.”

The reader wrote to News & Observer publisher Orage Quarles:

“I’ve been wondering how to respond to the above editorial since I hold an 180-degree view of the issue. Would it be possible to meet with you and whoever constitutes the ‘Our’ in ‘Our view’ and exchange perspectives? How about a 20-minute working lunch at the N&O’s office? (Everyone BYO lunch.)”

The publisher agreed. We set up the lunch for Friday. Then came another email: “I’ll renege on the get-together Friday for lunch. After re-reading ‘The party of no’ last night and the ‘Our View’ in yesterday’s N&O, I believe y’all are so far left it beggars the imagination. I hope you don’t do too much damage to the country in supporting the federal government’s Ponzi scheme.”

The canceled lunch came at the same time last week that the Republican National Committee was meeting in Charlotte to discuss the party’s future after humbling losses in the last two presidential races. The reader’s reluctance seemed to hold the key to the party’s soul searching: If the Republican Party wants to broaden its appeal, Republicans are going to have to come to the table and break bread with those who see things differently.

Being obstinate is an attitude. It’s not a policy. And so long as it’s the GOP’s hallmark, the Republican Party will continue to be more appalling than appealing.

In Charlotte, Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, told The New York Times, “We have allowed the message to get out that the Republican Party is the party of no and doesn’t care about diverse groups of people. It’s just nonsense.”

Curry grasps the effect while denying the cause. It’s not nonsense that Republicans are viewed as obstructionists and uninterested in many of the issues that are high priorities for minorities, immigrants, young adults or women.

What is nonsense is that the party believes that it can succeed by playing to the anger and fears of the tea party. By doing so, it risks becoming a party of cranky sputtering about Benghazi, Mexicans, gays, takers, taxes (although historically low), the debt ceiling, spending (unless it’s defense spending) and that all purpose epithet, socialism.

Meanwhile, the nation’s population is changing, and a majority of Americans are looking for leadership that speaks to the world as it is, to the lives they lead and to the future they want.

Newly re-elected Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus admits his party has lost touch with large parts of the nation. In an op-ed he offered following the Charlotte meeting, he wrote: “We must take the time to build stronger relationships in minority communities, urban centers, and college towns. We can’t expect voters to support us if they don’t know us or see us.”

What must have stung conservative Republicans most about President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address wasn’t that he disagreed with them, but that he said they no longer understood what built and drives the nation. It wasn’t starving the government. It was using it to help each other.

Obama said, “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

Taxes and spending themselves, obviously, are central issues today. But what is irrelevant are the contentions that taxes are a confiscation of wealth and a curb on freedom, and that spending on the needy and access to affordable health care are big government indulgences whose provision is better left to individuals, charities and small communities.

The Republican Party’s “anti” dimension is compounded by its adamant stands on shifting social issues. In North Carolina, Republicans pushed through a constitutional ban on gay marriage even as the national tide is quickly moving toward support for gay rights. The GOP rallied around deporting illegal immigrants, but an Associated Press-sponsored poll last week found that more than 6 in 10 Americans now favor allowing illegal immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens.

Conservatives have a great deal to contribute to the discussion of the nation’s future. At their best, they bring an emphasis on individual rights, a demand that government spending justify itself and an emphasis on fostering free enterprise as the path to the American Dream. It would be good if they focused on those areas rather than on blind legislative opposition and social issue campaigns that seek to bring back a1950s America that never existed and can’t exist now.

There are signs of hope. House Republicans said no to saying no and made a temporary deal on the debt ceiling. Senate Republicans gave ground that will reduce the need for 60 votes to get anything done in the chamber. In Raleigh, Gov. Pat McCrory won office handily in November in part by winning metro areas that also went for Obama. He broadened his appeal by offering himself as a moderate Republican who understands an increasingly urban state.

The nation faces big challenges as it tries to get the economy moving again and reduce the national debt. And its leaders must maintain tax fairness as the gap between the rich and all others widens and they must balance rights as demographics and values change.

It’s a lot to think about, but the solutions will start when people who disagree show a willingness to sit down and talk. Maybe even over a BYO lunch with BYO views.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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