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Changes signal a GOP thaw

March 4, 2013 

It’s hard to stay angry, especially when you’re really not. That effort is beginning to drain the long harrumph that has been the Republican Party for the past four years.

Republicans are trying to stay red-faced about everything from Benghazi to voting fraud to gay marriage to Obamacare to federal spending, but it’s exhausting, and the strain was particularly evident in the past week.

It started with the confirmation of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. One of the nearly extinct Republican moderates, he was lambasted by members of his own party during his protracted confirmation hearing. His offense was to break with two tenets of the current Republican orthodoxy: blind support for Israel and reflexive opposition to President Obama. But Hagel was confirmed and the obsessive and even McCarthy-like questioning of him raised more questions about the fitness of the inquisitors than the nominee.

At the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia dismissed the Voting Rights Act — now newly relevant because of efforts to suppress minority voting through voter ID requirements — as a "racial entitlement." The comment underscored the gulf between powerful conservatives and racial minorities even as next door at the Capitol, the first black president was unveiling a statue of Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks, who felt entitled to sit in the front of the bus.

Also last week, more than 100 high-profile Republicans broke from their party’s bedrock opposition to same-sex marriage. A group that included four former Republican governors and Ken Mehlman, a former national Republican Party chairman who is gay, signed onto an amicus brief submitted in support of a lawsuit now before the Supreme Court that would overturn California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage.

One of the biggest breaks from unified anti-Obamaism came in New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie decided to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act. Christie’s decision came on the heels of Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s reversal from tea party opposition to acceptance of the Medicaid expansion. Eight Republican governors have signed on.

Friday brought the sequester, but the public so far has been unimpressed. And if the cuts do start to hurt broadly, it appears Republicans will be the losers. An Elon poll of North Carolinians found 54 percent of those polled said Congress deserves the bulk of the fault for the budget crisis. About one-fourth (22 percent) blame President Obama. Seventeen percent blame both.

If voters are losing interest in obstruction, it won’t be long before they lose patience with it. That may prompt the loyal opposition to be more loyal to the needs of the country and less opposed to the president. If Republicans stonewall the discontent, no amount of convoluted redistricting will keep House Republicans in the majority once the ire rises.

In the Old North State, there were also signs of change. The Conservative Leadership Conference sponsored by the Civitas Institute was held in Raleigh on Friday and Saturday. It featured expected speakers – former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin – and a typical seminar: “Effective Tools for Confounding and Communicating With the Left.”

But conservative supporters of the party that has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections are now looking for ways to win over young people and Hispanics. The conference included seminars on “Engaging the Millennial Voters” and “Engaging the Hispanic Community.”

One answer to the party’s shrinking base was symbolized by its luncheon speaker on Saturday. Artur Davis is a former Democratic Alabama congressman and a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School. He switched to the Republican Party in 2012 and now is a speaker and columnist.

On the second day of the sequestration with forced spending cuts taking hold, Davis, who is black, told the crowd that Republicans can’t simply be opposed. They must be for something that connects with the broad swath of Americans, not simply traditional, pro-business, mostly white Republicans.

"They get that we’re angry, but they want to make sure that what we’re angry about is their powerlessness" and not legislative powerlessness, he said.

Davis was speaking of the nation, but could also have been describing his new party when he said, "We know we have lost something in these last four years that we have to regain," he said. "It’s our sense of who we are."

Davis, one of only a few blacks at the lunch for about 200 people, said the party has to become "big enough and spacious enough to speak for all kinds of people."

At that, one person clapped loudly, but no others joined in. Yet around the country there were signs that Republicans may be ready to applaud a new direction.

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

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