WASHINGTON – Maybe it’s time to exhume the body and have another look.
Back in 2013, the Republican National Committee “autopsy” of the 2012 election concluded that to win future presidential contests, the party would need to be more inclusive of women, be more tolerant on gay rights to gain favor with young voters, support comprehensive immigration reform to appeal to Latinos, and stand strong against “corporate malfeasance.”
Well, the 17 Republican presidential candidates met in Cleveland Thursday night for a total of three hours of debate and Americans saw candidates opposing abortion even in cases of rape or incest or to save a mother’s life; comparing the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage to one supporting slavery; and talking about building border walls and denying “amnesty.”
As for the autopsy’s charge that “we should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed”? The man who dominated Thursday’s spectacle defended his companies’ four bankruptcies (the most recent of which caused lenders to lose $1 billion and more than 1,000 people to lose jobs), saying all the “greatest people” in business use bankruptcy law to their advantage.
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That candidate, Donald Trump, set the tone in the opening minutes of the main debate, when Megyn Kelly of Fox News noted that he had called women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” The audience laughed.
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he quipped. More laughter.
Many Republicans fear Trump is hurting the party (a 49 percent plurality said so in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this past week) and the debate showed that the concern is justified. Though more responsible voices, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, tried to appeal to the broader electorate, Trump dragged the field back to pre-autopsy days.
The autopsy proclaimed that “we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform” and cease to use “a tone that undermined the GOP brand with Hispanic communities.”
So what was the “tone” on Thursday?
Fox’s Chris Wallace noted that Trump had famously said that the Mexican government is sending rapists and other criminals across the border, and he asked the businessman for proof.
“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration, Chris,” Trump rejoined.
The crowd applauded.
Trump went on about how we need “to build a wall, we need to keep illegals out,” and his opponents were hesitant to contradict him. “I also believe we need a fence,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has abandoned earlier support for comprehensive reform.
The autopsy called for the GOP to “be conscious of developing a forward-leaning vision for voting Republican that appeals to women.” It advised that unless the party is welcoming, “we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women.”
And how did that work out on Thursday?
Kelly asked Walker why he objected to a provision in an abortion law he signed that made an exception for the mother’s life. “Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?” she asked, noting that 83 percent of Americans feel otherwise.
Walker replied that “there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee suggested that he would defy the Roe v. Wade decision and block abortions. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would sic the IRS on Planned Parenthood. And when Kelly asserted that Rubio favored a rape-and-incest exception, Rubio replied: “I have never advocated that.”
The autopsy called for more sensitivity on gay rights, saying that “if our party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out.”
Thursday? Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said the same-sex marriage ruling is not settled law “any more than Dred Scott was settled law to Abraham Lincoln.” And Huckabee opposed the idea of transgendered Americans serving in the military.
Kasich, more than the others, tried to be inclusive, noting that he had attended a gay friend’s wedding. “Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them,” he said.
The home-state governor was well received. But can a message of respect prevail? Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson got applause for alleging that Hillary Clinton is “trying to destroy this country.”
Trump himself may have diagnosed the party’s problem best: “We don’t have time for tone.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.