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Friday, December 9, 2016

A new book of numbers by a Republican pollster doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges ahead for his party. Far from influencing politics at the margins, author Whit Ayres says current demographic trends are “changing results” in presidential elections and must be confronted.

Yet Ayres’ diagnoses and prescriptions raise a recurrent question for Republicans trying to map a way forward: In their emphasis on an inclusive tone and their confidence that Hispanics share their values, and in the absence of fundamental policy evolution, are they missing the point?

Ayres wrote his book 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America for all White House aspirants in his party. He is advising freshman Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is expected to enter the 2016 race this month in Miami and comes pre-promoted by Ayres as “the most transformational” of the large, emerging GOP field.

Rubio is so talented as a politician, Ayres told me and other reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, that he recalls onetime basketball superstar Michael Jordan. “He could do things with a basketball that were not teachable and were just instinctively amazing,” Ayres said. “Marco Rubio is the Michael Jordan of American politics.”

He’s not just gifted, “he’s substantive,” Ayres said, pointing to Rubio speeches on how to energize the economy for the middle class, make higher education more affordable, and reform the tax code “to create greater opportunity.”

On top of all that, Rubio is young, Hispanic, and Spanish-speaking. He’s 43, and his parents were born in Cuba.

If Rubio has a chance to be transformational, it will be due to his generation, ethnicity, and skills. When it comes to substance, he has inarguably done a lot of thinking about today’s domestic and international problems. Yet many of his prescriptions are more traditional than transformative: He’s a hawk on foreign policy, highly critical of how the Obama administration is handling Iran, Cuba, and the Middle East. His tax plan relies on the conservative standby of huge cuts for the wealthy and the bipartisan penchant for running up deficits. Like the rest of his party, he is a vehement foe of the Affordable Care Act.

His big step outside the box was his key role in crafting a bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate 68-32 two years ago. But the GOP turned against its reforms, such as a lengthy path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Rubio now stresses border security and calls himself “realistic.”

Given his background and abilities, Rubio is an ideal purveyor of the Reaganesque message that Ayres rightly insists his party should adopt. The template is Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address about a city teeming with people of all kinds, engaged in commerce and activity. And if the city had to have walls, the walls had gates, and the gates were open to all those with the will and the heart to get here,” as Ayres paraphrased it at the breakfast. “It’s that sort of inclusive message that built the last major Republican majority in this country, and it can do so again.”

Making that a reality, however, depends very much on appealing to Hispanics and young people, who have increasingly spurned GOP presidential candidates. The backlash over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act underscores the youth disconnect. “This is where we’re headed as a country. A political candidate who is perceived as anti-gay at the presidential level will never connect with people under 30 years old,” Ayres said bluntly.

He was equally pointed about immigration. “If your position is that you want to deport 11 million Hispanics, then you’re going to find it very difficult to persuade Hispanic voters that ‘we want you in the Republican coalition,'” he said. That was pretty much Mitt Romney’s approach in 2012, and it netted him 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. As the white share of the electorate continues to shrink, Ayres and other GOP strategists say the 2016 nominee will need mid-40s support from Hispanics to win.

This is no slam dunk. Like many Republican strategists, Ayres contends that Hispanics are in tune with “the panoply” of core GOP values — “individual liberty, free enterprise, strong families, strong national defense, greater opportunity for all” — but election results and other indicators suggest the case is not so cut and dried. There’s also the question of whether any Republican can sustain an inclusive, tolerant message during a primary process influenced heavily in its first critical weeks and months by the party’s most conservative loyalists.

A nominee who managed to maintain such a Reaganesque tone throughout would be in relatively good shape for a general election. But that would still leave the problem of Reaganesque policies tailored to very different times.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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