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As Much As The GOP Wants Change, Republicans Drag Their Feet


Republicans have been talking about reforming their party ever since President Obama was re-elected. Now the Supreme Court has weighed in on two huge issues, Obamacare and same-sex marriage, and some see a moment of opportunity for the GOP to move on to fresh issues and create a new image. But, as NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, change can be hard.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The Republican party has a math problem says GOP strategist Steve Schmidt.

STEVE SCHMIDT: Every single demographic group in the country that is growing, Democrats are growing their market share. Every single demographic group that is shrinking, Republicans are growing their market share. And that's a fundamental marketing problem.

LIASSON: And it's part of the reason why the GOP has lost the popular vote in the last 5 out of 6 presidential elections. But it's hard for Republicans to broaden their appeal to, say, young people or Hispanics when there's a big split inside the party on issues like gay marriage or immigration and Republicans haven't even decided exactly how they need to change. Candidates like Ted Cruz argue that the party needs to return to its consistently conservative roots, and then there's the argument about tone versus substance.

DAVID FRUM: Republicans have been arguing since 2012 - do we need to change the pizza or do we need to change the pizza box? And I think the correct answer is we need to change the pizza.

LIASSON: That's David Frum who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He says it's not enough to change the tone with friendlier, less divisive rhetoric. Frum thinks Republican policies need to change, too, and that means accepting that Obamacare is not going away, same-sex marriage is now the law of the land and that 11 million undocumented immigrants are here to stay. Frum says the party has made some progress.

FRUM: On one cultural issue, the Confederate flag, we have seen emphatic and decisive change. On another cultural issue, same-sex marriage, we have seen slow evolution that has touched much of the party but isn't yet articulated by the leading presidential candidates.

LIASSON: As for improving the party's image with Hispanic voters, that task was made a lot harder this week by the candidate who is currently in second place in Iowa, New Hampshire and national polls.


DONALD TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

LIASSON: Donald Trump, whose political persona is built around being outrageous, ended up reinforcing the most negative perceptions of Republicans. There was a huge backlash as companies like Univision and Macy's rushed to cut ties with Trump. But only a few of the other Republican presidential candidates criticized him. Jeb Bush did answer a question asked in Spanish about Trump's remarks after a town hall meeting in Nevada.


JEB BUSH: (Speaking Spanish).

LIASSON: Bush says, in translation, "I disagree with his remarks. They do not represent the values of the Republican Party, and they do not represent my values." Maybe not a huge profile in courage, but, says Steve Schmidt, there's a reason no major Republican candidate has made a point of taking on Trump.

SCHMIDT: There's an old saying about wrestling with a pig - both of you get dirty, and the pig likes it. And there's something of that going on.

LIASSON: And it's hard to get the Republican Party in sync with the majority of voters on immigration reform, same-sex marriage or climate change when the Republican primary electorate is headed in the opposite direction. Democrats, watching from the wings, are barely able to contain their glee at the GOP's difficulties. Here's Hillary Clinton at a rally in Virginia last week.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: A lot of Republicans may talk about having new ideas and fresh faces, but across the board, they're the party of the past, not the future.

LIASSON: It's still very early. Republicans have time to show voters they are a modern, future-oriented party. But if the image of Republicans as anti-immigrant, anti-gay and anti-science sticks, it will be a problem for the GOP next year. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.