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The GOP confronts its 'stuffy old men' problem

Give some credit to the Republican National Committee for at least recognizing that the Grand Old Party has a bit too much "old" and not enough "grand." Its recently released 100-page, post-election analysis, put together by veteran party advisers, points out quite correctly that Republicans are stuck in a rigid, 30-year-old ideology.

Some of the findings seem pretty obvious. Focus groups called Republicans "stuffy old men," "narrow-minded" and "out of touch." Well, duh. Any late-night talk show monologue could have revealed those gems (and likely has, repeatedly).

The consequences of this fuddy-duddiness, however, are not so amusing for the GOP. If Democrats continue to attract overwhelming majorities of minority and young voters, it's highly unlikely Republicans can again be competitive in national elections; that's just simple demographics. The electorate is changing, and the GOP must respond to those changes or become a second-tier political party representing only the views of older white voters — if that.

Take, for instance, the issue of gay marriage. A decade ago, Republicans found political advantage in advocating laws banning the practice at the state level. Today, support for same-sex marriage is creeping up toward a 2-to-1 margin, with young people even more overwhelmingly supportive. Yet most Republican politicians continue to oppose gay marriage (their 2012 platform called for a constitutional amendment banning it), which is deepening the generational divide.

Meanwhile, the GOP continues to appear captured by its fringe elements. The recent Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor provided a televised forum for the kind of extremism and nuttiness that turns off these same voters. Do Republicans want to be the party remembered for a certain short-term Alaska governor hoisting a Big Gulp?

That CPAC couldn't even bring itself to invite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to speak reveals much of what is hurting the party. After all, Governor Christie is an extraordinarily popular politician in a Democratic-leaning state, but he apparently committed the CPAC sin of not being quite partisan enough when he stood up for Hurricane Sandy storm victims.

Where the report falls short is in the proposed remedy. It makes some sensible recommendations in the area of form but not much in substance, aside from advocating that Republicans support comprehensive immigration reform. A shorter primary season, fewer debates, improved outreach and use of technology and perhaps even spending $10 million to sell the party to women and minorities makes some sense, but that's the easy stuff.

Minority voters aren't declining to support Republican candidates because they aren't aware of where the party stands. The perception of the GOP as having demonized immigrants is because the GOP has actually demonized immigrants. Same with Republicans' views on gay marriage, health care reform, and on and on.

If Republicans want to change, they'll need more than better public relations and putting fewer goofballs in the spotlight. They need to reassess where they stand on a broad variety of issues. Immigration reform is just one of the more obvious ones. They could just as easily have listed climate change, where Republicans have treated science and scientists with all the respect given heretics during the Inquisition.

In short, the GOP needs to move more toward the center. It's all very well to advocate lower taxes and smaller government as core principles; it's another to be the "Party of No" and simply oppose every effort to promote health care coverage, affordable college, equal pay, renewable energy or a cleaner environment without offering a reasonable alternative. Working-class Americans don't want to be left out in the cold by a party that only advocates for a lower capital gains tax rate.

Of course, the more challenging question is, can the party change? It took Bill Clinton to move the Democratic Party toward the center after the rise of Ronald Reagan conservatives, and it's not clear whether the Republicans have an equivalent. Jeb Bush? Karl Rove? They won't even admit to the problem. And Republicans have a name for their party's candidates deemed insufficiently conservative in primary elections: road kill.

But at least members of the RNC will admit they face a serious problem and have used some tough words to describe the party's circumstances. That's a good first step. Still, it will take more than a little self-flagellation and a little PR to put the party on a viable course of action by 2016.

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