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Friday, July 21, 2017

WASHINGTON — Rebranding is trendy in the Republican Party.

Rep. Eric Cantor gave a major speech on Tuesday to advance the effort. Gov. Bobby Jindal wants the GOP to stop being the “stupid party.” Karl Rove is setting up a PAC (it’s what he does these days) to defeat right-wing crazies who cost the party Senate seats.

But there’s a big difference between rebranding — this implies the product is fine but needs to be sold better — and pursuing a different approach to governing. Here’s an early action report.

The good news: Some Republicans have decided the party moved too far to the right and are backing off long-standing positions on tax increases, guns and immigration. Their new flexibility, combined with President Obama’s new post-election aggressiveness, is producing a quiet revolution in Washington. The place is becoming less dysfunctional.

Congress has already passed a substantial tax increase, Republicans avoided a debt ceiling fight, and the ice is breaking on guns and immigration.

The mixed news: A lot of the rebranding efforts are superficial yet nonetheless reflect an awareness that the party has been asking the wrong questions, talking about the wrong issues and limiting the range of voters it’s been addressing.

This is why Cantor’s speech was more important than the policies he outlined, which were primarily conservative retreads. His intervention proved that Obama and progressives are changing the terms of the debate, much as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.

Cantor wasn’t making the case for smaller government or tax cuts for the “job creators.” He was asking what government could do for the middle class — “to provide relief to so many millions of Americans who just want their life to work again.”

No wonder Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the Democrats’ most subtle strategists, jumped at the chance to praise Cantor for taking “the first step towards finding common ground in agreeing on the problem you are trying to solve.” If the debate is about who will be nicer to business or who will cut taxes, Republicans win. What Schumer understands is that if the issue is providing relief for the middle class (and for workers, immigrants and low-income children), Republicans are competing over questions on which progressives have the advantage.