CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “If we’re being honest about it, we have not really won a decisive presidential election since 1988,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters a few minutes after winning — uncontested — a second term at the party’s winter meeting here in Charlotte. In his speech to the RNC’s 168 members, Priebus put up a slide of the 1988 electoral map, a map that showed California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and Connecticut all in red. From today’s perspective, it was downright astonishing. And although the audience couldn’t see it, the large, and slightly rickety, gavel that Priebus and other party officials wielded at the podium had a brass plate that was engraved 1988 REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION.
That was 25 years ago; Republicans are painfully aware of just how long ago the good old days were. And nobody at the winter meeting had any illusions that 80′s-style Republican success is even on the horizon for the party. But even though everyone realized the gravity of the situation, there were still questions, as the members left Charlotte, about how the GOP will try to solve its problems. Will it enter a period of fundamental self-examination? Or will it decide that its main difficulties are in communications and messaging, and focus on superficial changes in hopes of winning future elections?
The answer: Don’t look for fundamental self-examination. Certainly the party’s leaders are talking about serious change. But the conclusion that emerged from the three-day meeting in North Carolina is that the party by itself cannot make fundamental changes when it comes to the stands Republicans take on some of the nation’s most important and divisive issues. The central GOP can improve its technology, its communications strategy, its get-out-the-vote efforts, its engagement with minorities. But a new Republican vision for the future, if there is to be one, will be left for a future Republican candidate to shape.