Former White House officials Tevi Troy and Peter Wehner debated the future of the GOP Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as thousands of conservatives and Republicans traveled to Washington to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
AEI moderator and senior editor for the National Review Ramesh Ponnuru raised "the main question conservatives are asking" since the November 2012 elections: "What would John Calhoun do?"
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While Ponnuru was joking—the Calhoun jab is a reference to a recent piece on conservatism by New York Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus that was published in The New Republic, a failing political biweekly—he also noted that there is a divide between younger and older Republicans.
Ponnuru said it is not necessarily one side versus the other but a series of overlapping agreements and disagreement on issues between many factions of the party.
Both speakers agreed on the problem Republicans need to address: How to expand the party without fracturing the base.
Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former deputy secretary at Health and Human Services (HHS) under President George W. Bush, focused on finding a "leader who explains what conservatism is and isn’t" in his opening remarks.
He referred to the early 1980s when there were bitter disagreements among the Republican Party before Ronald Reagan brought a "fusionist approach" to gather support and energize the party base.
For critics that accuse Republicans that "all you say is Reagan, Reagan, Reagan," Troy argued that George W. Bush successfully took a different tack with his "compassionate conservatism" during the 2000 campaign.
Troy believes the future of the movement depends on clarifying its message to deter critics from branding the party any way they please.
Wehner, the former deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush in 2001, said Republicans need to do more than clarify their message.
"We have a winning message for an electorate that doesn’t exist," he said.
Wehner pointed to Republicans winning five out of six presidential races from 1968 to 1988 but winning only two since 1992. In only one of those elections did the Republican candidate win the popular vote.
The reason for the change is shifting demographics, Wehner said.
If the demography of 1980 and 2012 were identical, Romney would have won by a larger margin than Ronald Reagan, he said.
"This spells real trouble of the Republican Party," he said.
Wehner said that "we have a communication problem" but added that the root of this problem comes from not keeping up with the demographic shifts.
"I’m not arguing that the GOP become more moderate but more modern," he said.
One of the few disagreements between Troy and Wehner came when discussing public welfare.
Troy argued that there were simple things Republicans could do now—such as ending tax expenditures, which he claimed constitute as public welfare—to help expand its base without dividing the party.
Wehner countered, referring to Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti’s cover story in the latest Weekly Standard, saying going against corporate welfare would split the Republican donor base.
"This country is just a different place than in the 1980s," Wehner said.