LOWRY/Where's today's Jack Kemp?
Wednesday, March 27, 2013 1:00 AM
The harsh assessment of the RNC "autopsy" committee would be that it talked to 2,600 people, yet one of its top proposals is reviving a minority inclusion council from the 1990s. It takes months of research to come up with this stuff?
But that would be too harsh. The autopsy is a good-faith effort to stare the Republican predicament straight in the face.
It's just that there are inherent limits to any such exercise. The party is not going to be saved by committee. The autopsy inevitably reflects the lowest common denominator of establishment Republican thinking on policy, recommending comprehensive immigration reform and hinting at surrender on gay marriage.
It is more interesting and useful when suggesting process changes, especially fewer primary debates. There were more than 20 of them last time. Can't every Republican agree that two debates moderated by ABC's Diane Sawyer are two debates too many?
The RNC autopsy has stirred up another round in an intraparty debate that is yeasty and entertaining, and will surely prove largely irrelevant to the Republican future.
One facet of that ongoing debate is the fight between the grass roots and the establishment over Senate primaries, which has been raging for months and got more fuel when speakers at the annual conservative gathering, the Conservative Political Action Conference, savaged the Republican consultant class. Rarely has so much heat been generated with so little light.
Some of the same grass-roots conservative leaders banging on the consultants believed that Christine O'Donnell would sweep to victory in the Delaware Senate race in 2010. Every time they are about to congratulate themselves on their electoral acuity, they should have to listen to three hours of floor speeches by Delaware's senator for life, Democrat Chris Coons.
On the other hand, the establishment was eager to deliver a Florida Senate seat to Charlie Crist, who is as real as a spray-on tan and as appealing as a cheesy billboard for legal services (which he appeared on after Marco Rubio unceremoniously dispatched him back to legal practice).
The important question isn't so much establishment or grass roots as it is who and where. Mike Lee isn't Christine O'Donnell, and Utah isn't Delaware. So he actually won his 2010 Senate race.
Consider Ted Cruz of Texas, whose smarts and fearlessness are making him the most dangerous man in the U.S. Senate. He proves that you can be anti-establishment - he ran a grass-roots insurgency in his Republican primary - and yet talented and electable.
So much depends on political horseflesh. Mitt Romney may have been wounded by the 20-odd debates, but he agreed to so many of them in the first place because he was a weak front-runner fearful of crossing primary voters. If Romney had been granted the Republican nomination with no competition whatsoever, he still would have been a politically inartful former management consultant.
And so much depends on substance. No "rebranding" will make a difference if Republican policy is not relevant to people's lives. What the party desperately needs more than different marketing or new consultants are a few Jack Kemps, political entrepreneurs willing to ignore orthodoxies and evangelize for new ideas.
Kemp did his most important work as a backbencher in the House. Where is his equivalent today? Two possible Republican contenders in 2016 have demonstrated some of his entrepreneurial spirit. No committee ever would have come up with the idea for Rand Paul's filibuster. It showed gumption and creativity, and it caught people's imagination. But it was in a cause - preventing drone attacks on U.S. citizens - that is not pertinent to the everyday life of anyone not on the run in Yemen.
For his part, Rubio has begun to talk about college affordability, an issue that should be part of a new conservative agenda aimed at concrete middle-class concerns. All the action, though, is around Rubio's other cause of comprehensive immigration reform.
The Republican Party can study itself to death, but without some Jack Kemps, it will remain in its current stasis for the duration.
Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.