Smerconish: Open primaries would help GOP in 2016
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called it an "autopsy." The nearly 100-page report the RNC issued last week was a frank assessment not only of why Mitt Romney lost in November but also why the Republican nominee lost the popular vote five times in the last six presidential elections.
The report offered 23 pages of recommendations, ranging from making the GOP the "growth and opportunity party" to developing "a national African-American surrogate list." "And if there's one message I want everyone to take away from here, it's this," Priebus said in releasing the report. "We know we have problems, we've identified them, and we're implementing the solutions to fix them." Still, one important problem will not be solved by the recommendations: the influence of the party's fringe.
The closest the report came to addressing that was in this paragraph: "We also recommend broadening the base of the party and inviting as many voters as possible into the Republican Party by discouraging conventions and caucuses for the purpose of allocating delegates to the national convention. Our party needs to grow its membership, and primaries seem to be a more effective way to do so. The greater the number of people who vote in a Republican primary, the more likely they will turn out and vote again for the Republican candidate in the fall election." Well, if the GOP believes it benefits when more people vote in Republican primaries, the solution is self-evident: Let everyone vote in open primaries.
Apparently, Mike Murphy agrees with me. The veteran GOP operative tweeted: "Key to stronger party is more open primaries." Open primaries would provide an immediate way for the party to invite expats to return to the fold, if only for a particular election. I refer to the multitudes who have abandoned the GOP because it has become a party of litmus tests.
Don't take my word for it. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush noted last year that his father, George H.W. Bush, and even Ronald Reagan would have had a difficult time being elected in the current ultraconservative incarnation of the party.
The ranks of independents have grown to the detriment of the RNC. And with their exodus, the party has lost opportunities to balance the extremists in its ranks.
The RNC assembled focus groups of voters who recently left the party in Columbus, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa. Those sessions produced the following assessment: "Asked to describe Republicans, they said that the party is 'scary,' 'narrow-minded,' and 'out of touch,' and that we were a party of 'stuffy old men.' That is consistent with the finding of other post-election surveys." The voters who express such sentiments are those who would have opposed the nomination of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Todd Akin in Missouri, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, and Joe Miller in Alaska. And unless they come back to the fold, the GOP will remain a party in which even someone as conservative as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has to fear a primary challenge.
Last week's report acknowledged that between the lines. But its proposed remedies don't go far enough.
The report discourages caucuses (think Iowa, where Rick Santorum won in 2012), contemplates regional primaries, envisions cutting the number of debates in half, and suggests shortening the nomination calendar. Why? Because, as Politico noted, those steps would presumably benefit a well-funded candidate and hurt an ideologically driven outsider. Which is why allies of Santorum and Sen. Rand Paul wasted no time in voicing opposition to the suggestions.
But none of that would fix the real cancer within the party. The GOP can eliminate caucuses, rearrange primaries, cut debates, and move up the convention, but unless moderates have access to the primaries, the only people who vote in them will remain the ideologues. And the Republican debates will remain the kind of forums in which a gay soldier is booed, lack of emergency care is cheered, and all the candidates feel compelled to raise their hands in opposition to a 10-to-1 spending-cut-to-tax-increase proposal! The net effect will be the continued nomination of candidates who can't win general elections.
One section of the report notes that "radio stars, websites, and magazines function as unofficial arbiters and limiters of domestic and foreign policy debate." It adds that "our friends and allies must realize that the party is at its best as the party of ideas, and healthy debate of those ideas is fundamentally good for the Republican Party." If the party means it, then let it begin a healthy debate about opening up its primaries to all voters.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.