With the party at its lowest standing in several decades, Republicans on Saturday launched a listening tour in the heart of the Democratic suburbs, where several of the party’s leading voices steered clear of hot-button issues and instead emphasized the need to advance new policy ideas to revive the party's prospects.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and former Republican governors Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney – both frequently mentioned as potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates – spoke to about 100 attendees at a pizzeria in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va.. The event was the first held by the newly launched National Council for a New America.
They chose Pie-tanza, a small independently owned pizzeria in a suburban strip mall, that Cantor deemed "emblematic of thousands of small businesses across America," a symbol Republicans hope to harness as they re-couch their free-market principles in response to President Obama.
The common thread at the forum was that Republicans party’s struggles are rooted in its nostalgia for a more successful past, and inability to offer a policy agenda suited for the 21st century. To make a political comeback, the GOP leaders argued, the party needs to modernize its ideas and agenda.
"Our party has taken its licks over the last couple of cycles," Cantor acknowledged. "But that's why we're here."
At the forum, there was little talk about the president’s recently-passed budget and stimulus proposals, which were vigorously opposed by Republicans. Instead, the GOP trio talked about bread-and-butter issues that directly impact voters – the rising cost of health care, merit pay for teachers, and the price of college tuition.
“From the conservatives, it’s time for us to listen first, to learn a little bit, to upgrade our message a little bit and to not be nostalgic about the past,” Bush said. “You can’t beat something with nothing, and the other side has something. I don’t like it but they have it and we have to be respectful and mindful of that.”
Bush added: “We have principles and values that are shared by the majority of Americans, but we have to now take those principles and apply them to these challenges are country faces today.”
The former Florida governor offered a panoply of proposals on education reform, citing a study showing the United States lags well behind other developed countries in math and science.
Romney touted his work in Massachusetts to implement a universal health care system that he said incorporated the private sector, not the government, in the process. And he warned that rising spending under the Democrats threatens to stagnate long-term economic growth.
“When the capital disappears, the current view of the administration is that we ought to raise taxes on capital, we ought to raise taxes on investment. The right thing to do is to lower taxes or at least hold them down… that’s one thing we do a little different,” said Romney. “There are ways to solve problems if we look beyond Washington.”
Romney and Bush both downplayed their own political ambitions. Bush, who earlier this year declined to run for Florida's open Senate seat, said he was glad to be out of the political arena and is now focused on brainstorming policy ideas – and expressed his frustration that most politics in Washington are "defined by a food fight."
"It’s time for others to embrace good ideas and to implement them," he told POLITICO on his way out of the event.
Romney similarly begged off questions about a potential 2012 White House bid after the event, but was careful to not rule out the prospect.
"I haven't shut the door but I haven't walked through the door, either," said Romney, who was taping an interview with CNN. Asked earlier if the three Republicans were the face of their party, Romney joked that he and Bush were "two has-beens already."
While the party focuses on the future, the public faces have hardly changed – a Bush, a 2008 candidate for the party's nomination, and a longtime member of the House GOP leadership – with no women or minorities on center stage. One of the expected attendees, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), couldn’t make it because her child got sick.
Questions from the Republican-friendly crowd ranged from conservative softballs, like one about the economic impact of the Employee Free Choice Act, to more open-ended policy questions about what Republicans can do to improve education or health care coverage.
"We've got to give Americans something to say 'yes' to," said Brian Summers, a former volunteer for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, eliciting applause from the crowd.
"This was long overdue," Summers said about the event afterward. "The party needs to grow."
The party leaders notably avoided any discussion of issues that have motivated the GOP base – gay marriage, immigration, and abortion. Indeed, several protesters from an anti-illegal immigration group stood outside the pizzeria holding signs complaining that the party was sidestepping crucial social issues.
“The reason that immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion were left off the agenda is because they feel it will turn people off to the Republican party,” said Michael McLaughlin, a member the American Council for Immigration Reform. “To me, you can’t discuss energy independence and health care without talking about immigration. It’s all related.”
As they embark on this experiment, the assembled Republicans were reluctant to offer timelines or set specific expectations for the party's future.
"We don't have to come up with all the answers today," Romney told the crowd, before offering that, "Certainly, by 2010 we should."
And Cantor said the party should be inclusive in recruiting candidates, when asked if he would be open to supporting pro-choice candidates or those supporting gun control.
“We are – and should be – an inclusive party,” he said.
-- Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.