The sun-drenched waterfront hotel in Miami is glitzy, with swaying palms out front and a glittering fountain in the lobby. But the mood inside Wednesday was dark, as the Republican governors Association gathered to try to rebuild a brand badly tarnished at the polls.
Yes, the GOP's governors can rightly claim a better track record than their ticketmates in the presidential and congressional races earlier this month. And their ranks do boast a genuine rock star in Alaska's Sarah Palin, the vice presidential sensation who all but incited a riot when she ambled from behind a curtain set up in the hotel's mezzanine to make her way from an interview with Larry King to the elevator bank. (Perhaps because of the crushing stampede that followed Palin wherever she went, the Alaska governor largely kept a low profile on the opening day of the conference, skipping most events).
But those truths offered cold comfort to the largely weary crowd. At a panel discussion Wednesday of what went wrong in the 2008 campaign and the implications for the party's image, the tone was often surprisingly negative, especially for a public forum. Pollster and panel moderator Frank Luntz explained the rationale: "Normally when I do these presentations it is done in private, but the [Republican governors] wanted the American people to know that they understand what happened in this election and this is the beginning, not the end." Luntz didn't mince words, telling the crowd that he felt like assisted-suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian "at an AARP convention" and reminding the party faithful that taken together, the 2006 midterms and the 2008 elections marked the GOP's worst back-to-back performance since 1930 and '32. "We have to be honest with ourselves," Luntz said, "and quite honestly things are really tough right now."
To counter, the conference is seeking to showcase the governors' comparative success. Smart young leaders like South Carolina's Mark Sanford, Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal are expected to help revitalize the party. Said Luntz: "Republican governors will be the people who bring the party back to a majority. It's not going to happen in Washington. It's going to happen in the states."
Mississippi's Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, pointed out that there won't be enough Republicans in Congress to get anything done except "obstruct, complain and occasionally defeat bad policy"—while GOP governors will be able to create and implement successful programs. He predicted the governors will rebuild the brand and emphasized that the GOP has survived dark days before—recalling that after Watergate he and other Republicans considered changing the name of the Republican Party as a PR strategy. "I have looked down on the grave of the Republican Party and this is not it," Barbour said.
There was also plenty of envy over Barack Obama's technological edge. "Understand what he has at his disposal: 10 million names," Luntz said. "It makes him and his supporters the most powerful special-interest group in all of America …We've never had a situation where so many people are so active and so engaged and they can be reached by the stroke of a key." Meanwhile, Luntz said, the GOP nominee didn't know how to use a Blackberry. "There's a generational problem the Republican Party is going to have to address," he said, launching into a slideshow with titles such as "Voters Don't Think You Have Delivered," "What Were You Thinking?" and "The Problem: Throw the Bums Out!" Luntz wasn't the only one on stage to underscore the significance of the Web. When asked what he believes the most important initiative for Republicans to undertake going forward might be, National Review writer Byron York said it is imperative that party leaders get a better understanding of the Internet and its political applications.
Jindal focused more on the message itself. The handsome young Indian-American responsible for helping to rebuild Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina sounded suspiciously like someone who is running for higher office, or plans to sooner rather than later. He said that while it's tempting for Republicans to come up with excuses or to blame the media, he believes Americans fired the party with cause. "The Republican Party is no longer the party of fiscal discipline," Jindal said. "Our bumper sticker message can't be vote Republican because the other side is worse. American voters are right to say: 'We demand competence, we demand solutions'."
Jindal urged the party to return to first principles. He recalled how his parents registered as Republicans when they first arrived in Louisiana, a state long dominated by Democrats. "What made the Republican Party attractive to them," he said, "is the embracing of the American Dream. If people work hard and get a great education, there's no limit on what they can accomplish, and as we propose solutions that address the challenges that fulfill that dream that voters care about, we'll win the young vote, we'll win elections. We have to be optimistic, bold and principled." Obama couldn't have put it any better himself.
If Jindal does run for the GOP nomination in 2012, he's all but certain to face Palin, who has been spending her time this week largely on television interviews in which she has steadfastly sought to rehabilitate her image, presumably so she can gear up for the next presidential election. At a bizarre press conference this morning, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said as much in his introductory remarks, telling a throng of about 100 reporters, "I can assure you she's just getting started."
While the media had been promised 20 minutes of Palin's time, she marched onto stage with a dozen other governors (the contrast of a sparkling Palin—wearing a black leather jacket, an above-the-knee skirt and open-toed shoes—and the 12 white men in suits behind her was striking). Palin was the indisputable star of the show, but she stayed on message, referring often to her fellow governors as a "team" and downplaying any talk of 2012. "I, like all of the Republican governors, we're focused on the future," Palin said. "And the future for us is not that 2012 presidential race. It's next year, our next budgets, the next reforms in our states. And it's 2010—we'll have 36 governors positions open across the U.S. That's what we're focused on—we're focused on providing good service."