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Rebuilding the GOP

From Rubio and Paul to CPAC and Priebus, the party's reinvention is the best show in town.

The first six months or so after a president’s reelection are usually pretty dull, particularly if neither chamber of Congress changed hands. Sure the Cabinet gets reshuffled and some members of Congress leave town and are replaced by new ones, but things can usually be described as “more of the same.”

This year has been different, starting with the first days of the new year, when all eyes were on Washington and the fiscal-cliff crisis. Also intriguing has been watching the Republican Party deal with the aftershocks from the November elections. Surprised at how badly they did in the presidential and Senate races, Republicans have been engaged in a spirited debate over how to broaden the party’s appeal beyond its base. So this year hasn’t been quite the snoozer that most status quo elections typically usher in.

Just in the span of the past few days, we’ve seen some developments worthy of raising one, if not two, eyebrows. The least surprising was the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. It’s an event best described as a gathering of a mostly younger group (the CPAC/Washington Times straw poll indicated that 41 percent of the 2,930 attendees were students and more than half were between 18 and 25 years of age) who represent the party’s most conservative wing. Besides offering a where-are-they-now sighting of Sarah Palin, the event held a GOP presidential-preference poll: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky edged his fellow freshman Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida by 2 points, 25 percent to 23 percent. Former Sen. Rick Santorum was a distant third with 8 percent; New Jersey Gov. (and suspected moderate) Chris Christie came in fourth with 7 percent; and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin finished fifth with 6 percent.

Far more intriguing was the Republican National Committee’s release of its “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, widely and aptly described as an autopsy of what happened in the 2012 election—although it might be more accurate to compare it to a National Transportation Safety Board report detailing the underlying causes of a plane crash. Commissioned by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, the report—highly recommended reading for campaign aficionados—looks at the technological gap between the two parties, the mechanics of voter identification, as well as the GOP’s get-out-the-vote effort. Additionally, the report takes a hard look at the way the rhetoric and messaging from many party officials has been off-putting to so many young, female, and minority voters and the damage that has done to the party brand.

The report is an unprecedented and very public self-examination. It is unusual for a party, even after a major defeat, to be so open about its problems. Usually party leaders discuss such matters in private.

Finally, this week saw Paul, who is increasingly becoming the face, voice, and leader of the tea-party movement, not to mention a potential 2016 presidential candidate, come out for a form of comprehensive immigration reform with a speech that was remarkable for its warmth and openness to Latino voters, something rather unusual for that wing of the party. Speaking before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Paul cited “harsh rhetoric” from some in the GOP that has driven away Latino voters; while Paul did not use the word “citizenship” for those undocumented immigrants, he did outline a proposal that goes much further than those who think anything short of deportation is amnesty.

Paul’s move provides some cover for Republicans seeking room to maneuver on the issue, who want a compromise that doesn’t amount to a primary-election suicide. His actions are a very big deal in the context of the immigration debate, even though his proposals fall far short of what most reform advocates seek.

It would be foolhardy to try to read too much from CPAC or its straw poll other than to allow both to serve as a reminder of how passionate and unorthodox extreme partisans and ideologues are. On a recent weekend, I was sitting in the CPAC hotel sports bar with a Republican campaign manager when I saw a guy in full revolutionary costume and the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag wandering through the atrium. I’ve seen some pretty odd characters at Democratic and liberal meetings as well. These are the faces and voices that many Republican House and Senate members of various ideological stripes see and hear when they go home for town meetings and other events, reminders of the magnitude of the challenge that House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell must face every day.