Growing Pains

Can the GOP learn to believe in change?

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Justin Fantl for TIME

Republican party boss Reince Priebus, a pin-striped lawyer from Wisconsin, recently let slip that he wanted a date with Whoopi Goldberg and her friends. "We have to stop divorcing ourselves from the American culture," he explained on March 18 as he laid out his plan to rebuild the party after its 2012 election defeat. "Maybe that might mean I could get an invitation with the ladies of The View. We'll see."

Most party chairmen try to avoid the headlines. But in recent weeks, Priebus has adopted a pose of brutal candor, trying to stir up his party with dire predictions and frank language. "Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren't inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital. Our primary and debate process needed improvement," he said, diagnosing all that went wrong in last year's campaign. "There's no one solution," Priebus continued. "There's a long list of them."

The solutions Priebus proposed include an overhaul not just of campaign mechanics but also the basic DNA that has helped to define the party of Reagan, Bush and Romney over three decades. Stop attacking popular culture, and start becoming a part of it, he says. Open a party office near San Francisco to attract high-tech hipsters. Cut the number of primary debates in half. Spend $10 million a year to send full-time organizers into minority communities. Dump or moderate the policy positions that are turning off the next generation of voters.

"We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," one part of the Priebus report urges, contradicting the official 2012 party platform, which opposes "any form of amnesty" for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.: "If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink." It also recommends opening a debate within the party over opposition to gay marriage. "For many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be," says the report. For Priebus, the new watchword must be inclusiveness: "Our 80% friend is not our 20% enemy."

Ari Fleischer, a former aide to President George W. Bush who worked with Priebus on the report, says he hopes the party takes these messages to heart and revises its philosophy. Otherwise, he says, "It is a very bleak picture for Republicans." Already, he notes, the current GOP message of small government and low taxes is not enough to attract more than minimal interest among minorities and the young. "Devastatingly, we have lost the ability to be persuasive," he says.

Since November, Priebus, Fleischer and others have canvassed more than 50,000 people, including much of the Republican establishment. Focus groups of former Republican voters in Ohio and Iowa evinced descriptions of the GOP like "scary," "narrow-minded," "stuffy old men" and "out of touch." Even the party's campaign managers and operatives were nearly unanimous in crediting Democrats with running better campaigns in almost all respects: data, voter targeting, outreach, turnout, online fundraising, ad placement and campaign talent.

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