The GOP is stumbling toward a moderate message

March 19, 2013, 5:15 PM UTC
Sen. Marco Rubio offers a new Republican view of the 47%.

FORTUNE — Don’t be fooled by the fire spewing out of the dragon that was last week’s annual CPAC confab. Beneath the barbed infighting and insistence that the GOP needs to double down on its lean to the right, there were important signs that the defeated Republican Party is stumbling toward a message with broader appeal.

That was underlined Monday by Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, who told a Washington press club gathering that a new RNC report on the state of the GOP “minces no words in telling us that we have to be more inclusive … Our 80% friend is not our 20% enemy. We can be true to our principles without being disrespectful of those who don’t agree with a hundred percent of them.”

The Conservative Political Action Conference represents the all-important right side of the Republican Party. And its annual meeting — which wrapped here in Washington late Saturday — celebrates libertarians like Rand Paul and diehard social conservatives like Sarah Palin. Expressly not invited to this year’s confab were New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, the latter in the conservative doghouse for raising taxes to cover transportation projects.

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But Florida Senator Marco Rubio — a darling of the right who came a close second in the CPAC straw poll for the 2016 presidential race — was described by one reporter as “almost Obama-esque” in a speech that mostly focused on the economy.

Just as Rubio in the past has advocated pathways to citizenship for immigrants, he used this speech to talk about creating pathways to the middle class for lower-income Americans who lack the skills and education they need to move up. “They’re not freeloaders,” he said in a pointed reference to candidate Mitt Romney’s 47% gaffe.

“They’re just everyday people that want what everybody else wants … a better life,” Rubio said. But they face disappearing jobs in a global, high-tech economy. “They pay their mortgages on time,” he noted, “yet when the housing crisis came they were stuck with a bill — for bailing out the banks that caused it, for bailing out the people who took out mortgages they couldn’t afford.”

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, another favorite in conservative circles, admonished the party for being all too often being “anti-everything.” “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party.”

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Note, too, the economic populism in Bush’s pitch. Like Rubio, he noted that upward income mobility is increasingly more difficult for Americans born without built-in advantages. “It is not a validation of our conservative principles if we can only point to the increasingly rare individual who overcomes adversity and succeeds in America,” Bush said. “Here’s reality: if you’re fortunate enough to count yourself among the privileged, much of the rest of the nation is drowning.”

“In our country today, if you’re born poor, if your parents didn’t go to college, if you don’t know your father, if English isn’t spoken at home, then the odds are stacked against you,” Bush said.

CPAC also revealed interesting movement among conservatives on immigration: If you add up the CPAC delegates who voted in the straw poll for Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, 48% effectively support normalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in living in the U.S. (Rubio supports a pathway-to-citizenship plan, and Paul told the
Washington Post’s
Jennifer Rubin in December: “We should say up front we are not sending 12 million people home.”)

On a hot-button social issue, gay marriage, there is movement elsewhere in the party. In the week leading up to the CPAC meeting, a group of more than 80 prominent Republicans signed an amicus brief for the Supreme Court advocating the legalization of gay marriage. And on Friday, Rob Portman of Ohio, whose son is gay, became the first Republican senator to support gay marriage.

After I made the case on Fox News Sunday that the GOP needed to become more moderate to win future presidential elections, I was targeted on Twitter. One viewer pointed out (with good reason) that I was arguing the Republican Party should be more inclusive, when the Democrats are notorious litmus-testers on issues like abortion.

But here’s the harsh reality. The Romney-Ryan ticket problem wasn’t with conservatives (82% of whom voted for the GOP) or Republicans (93%) or even independents (Obama got 45% to the GOP’s 50%).

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The Republicans got slaughtered with self-described “moderates” — 56 % to 41%. That’s important because while liberals are about a quarter of voters, and conservatives a little over a third, moderates made up 41% of the vote, according to exit polls.

The Republican Party has a problem with single women (a growing portion of female voters); Hispanics (another growing part of the electorate); and low-income voters.

Much has been made of the GOP’s supposed inability to appeal to the youth vote — the Facebook generation, as Rand Paul puts it. In fact, the GOP ticket won whites in the millennial generation. The party’s problem is the increasing diversity of the country, and that generation.

The challenge for any future Republican presidential candidate is to hold on to the party’s conservative base while appealing to moderates — not doubling down on turning out its conservative base. Bill Clinton learned that hard lesson in the years leading up to his 1992 election. He was never fully trusted by the left. But he understood that bear-hugging his party’s grass-roots wasn’t the route to national victory.