WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Pushing back against criticism that the GOP had become defined entirely by opposition to President Obama, Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus released a list of 11 “Principles for American Renewal” that he said would guide the GOP agenda should it gain control of government.
“People know what we’re against,” Priebus said in a speech at George Washington University. “I want to talk about the things that we're for.”
The document itself was sparse: Each principle was no longer than one sentence and described the GOP’s goals on topics like “Constitution,” “Economy,” “Security,” and “Poverty” in the broadest possible language.
“These 11 principles unite us as a party and inform our policymaking, whether you’re running for governor in New England or Congress in the South or statehouse in the West,” Priebus said.
Priebus’ speech comes 20 years after Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, a list of eight procedural reforms and ten proposed bills that Republicans pledged to pass if they took control of Congress, which they did in November 1994. Nostalgia for the document has grown among Republicans in recent days as some lawmakers and commentators have complained the party needs to take strong positions on issues rather than hope Obama’s woes alone push them over the finish line.
“This idea of running as a referendum, assuming a wave, assuming you’ve got the wind at your back, assuming with an unpopular president we therefore by default will win, I don’t buy that,” Congressman Paul Ryan told the Washington Examiner this week. “I think you got to give people a reason to vote for you.”
The terse new principles were probably most notable for what they left out. The Contract with America promised to pass specific pieces of legislation as well as specific reforms to Congressional procedure such as term limits on committee chairmanships. For example, “The Personal Responsibility Act” as described in the 1994 document would “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility.” The RNC’s 2014 remix refrained from such specifics, although Priebus name-checked stray bills from individual members as possible ways forward in his speech.
The lack of detail on par with the 1994 version at least partly reflects a lack of consensus among Republicans about how to address many of the major issues up for debate.
Take immigration, for example. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012 on a hardline enforcement platform, Priebus led the charge to pass immigration reform. An RNC autopsy of the election warned that “if Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”
But more than a year later, Republicans have shelved plans for sweeping immigration policy changes amid deep opposition from conservatives. Priebus on Thursday promised reform in only the vaguest terms, pledging the GOP would pass legislation that “secures our borders, upholds the law, and boosts our economy,” without identifying how they would achieve any of the above goals beyond opposing executive action by Obama.
At the same time, Priebus took a decidedly softer tact with his rhetoric on the immigration question than members like Rep. Steve King. "Our country should be a welcoming place for those who want to come here and do it the right way,” he said.
Health care is another area where opposition to Obamacare has helped cover up a deep divide over what should replace it. Priebus named a number of individual policies Republicans have supported: letting people purchase health care across state lines, for example, or limiting lawsuits against doctors. But House Republicans have been unable to come up with a consensus health care replacement for Obamacare, despite years of promises to do so, because of divisions over the bigger question of whether government should subsidize care for the uninsured at all and, if so, how to pay for it. Those divisions have widened even further since the law’s coverage expansion took effect and some prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have hedged as to whether they might maintain popular elements of the law.
Priebus’ own speech, while focused on the party’s positive agenda, still included plenty of digs at the president. Discussing national security, for example, he said Republicans would “defeat terrorism, not manage it,” “strengthen” the military, and address cyber security. But other than a rundown of Obama gaffes (referring to an emergent ISIS as a “JV team,” for example) there wasn’t much detail as to what they would do differently. He began another passage about school choice by saying that “not every American has the money to choose a good school for their children like President and Mrs. Obama do.”
Though many of those same issues also divide the GOP, which finds itself trying to reconcile business elites with its conservative base, Priebus made efforts to highlight the unity of the party, saying he believed 95% of members would agree with the eleven principles and name-dropping lawmakers from tea partier Sen. Mike Lee to establishment stalwart Rep. Paul Ryan.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin responded to Priebus' speech in a statement by saying Republicans "continue to obstruct progress at every turn, regardless of the cost."
"The Republican Party's problem isn't that voters don't know what they stand for, their problem is voters do," Czin said. "Yet another rebrand and repackaging won't change that."
Jane Timm contributed reporting.