WASHINGTON — They’ve been branded as the “party of no” — a group of ultra-conservative obstructionists catapulted into Congress with a mission to block anything Democrats, especially President Barack Obama, put forward. And after being blamed for last fall’s government shutdown, the Republicans’ approval ratings have plummeted.
But with a chance for the GOP to take the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016 fast approaching, some Republicans are in the midst of rebranding themselves as the “party of bold” — conservative ideas fueled by inspiration and optimism.
Several prominent Republican congressmen, notably Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as think tanks and lobbying organizations are pushing an agenda that emphasizes conservative values and ideals, and frames them as pathways to prosperity — not protections for those who have already enjoyed it.
The idea: Become the party of “yes, you can,” instead of “no, Washington shouldn’t.”
“When we become the party that proclaims that message like a man coming over the hill singing, then our ideas will win the day again,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Wednesday night at a gala for the American Principles Project.
The likely 2016 GOP presidential contender delivered the keynote address at the staunchly conservative lobbying group’s fundraiser and struck an interesting balance between reasserting traditional conservative principles — lower taxes, a smaller federal government, an emphasis on marriage and anti-abortion — while nudging the more than 100 donors to make the party more inclusive and approachable.
“We are the moral party,” Paul said, “but we wrap all morality and good we believe in all this materialism and numbers and statistics, and we lose what we really are for. We are the party that really does want to help the long-term unemployed.
“We are the party that wants to help those who live in poverty. There needs to be a debate not about which party cares, or which party wants to help people, but about which policies work.”
While Paul didn’t endorse the government shutdown, he criticized the “Kumbaya crowd” in the Republican Party that he said values bipartisanship over conservative principles.
“Sometimes, they say to us, ‘Why are you fighting? Can’t we all just get along?’” he said. “The fighting doesn’t have to be impolite. It doesn’t have to be rude. But there needs to be a struggle for the direction of the party. We have to decide, are we going to go bold or are we going to go big, or are we going to become Democrat lite?”Paul was also careful to tout the political appeal of libertarian ideas in a conservative context, attempting to de-stigmatize what the senator called “a bad word” to some Republicans.
“To many of us, libertarian means freedom and liberty, but we also see that freedom needs tradition,” said Paul. “Freedom needs tradition to give it its balance and stability and sense of family and community and those kinds of things.”
That falls right in line with what American Principles Project is pushing. The group released an “autopsy” report on the party’s failure to take the Senate and White House in 2012. The report claims that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican slate should have gone all-in on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage instead of underplay them. They argue that focusing too much on Obama’s economic record wasn’t successful, and that pivoting away from social issues allowed Democrats to brand Republicans as cruel and immoral.
Heritage Action — the lobbying wing for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank — is calling on Republicans to do the same. The group held a Conservative Policy Summit on Monday to outline “an agenda to unite America,” with panels on topics ranging from privacy and welfare reform to health care to energy independence and cronyism.
The broader idea is to unite the country with a strong conservative vision that brings every American into the fold.
“Right now, there is not a conducive environment in Washington, D.C., for bold ideas because this town is where bold ideas go to die.” said Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action.
In a panel on welfare reform, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said he would introduce a bill that would lower spending on benefits to pre-recession levels, add a work requirement to get benefits and force the president to list 10 years worth of welfare figures in the annual budget.
Jordan also said federal policies and statements made by Democratic leaders are creating an anti-work culture, with current welfare programs — that currently serve 12,800,000 Americans — standing as a roadblock to self-sufficiency. His Welfare Reform Act would aim to reverse that, he said.
“We’re robbing them of the opportunity of experiencing those skills, those values, those principles that we grew up with,” Jordan, said, recalling his childhood mowing lawns with his brother. “Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but it sure improves your chances. And when we have a culture and government policies that go in the opposite direction, that’s a mistake.”
Bob Woodson, founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, agreed, adding that federal spending only feeds into the poor social values that have led some to poverty. Woodson called on conservatives to highlight those who have overcome challenges.
“I think when we talk about poor people, I think we spend too much time talking about their deficits,” Woodson said. “We as conservatives must inspire people with victories that are possible.”
Senators not seeking re-election in 2014