Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What GOP needs to do in Tampa

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
August 27, 2012 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the convention is an opportunity for Republicans to rebrand the campaign and the party's image.
Julian Zelizer says the convention is an opportunity for Republicans to rebrand the campaign and the party's image.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: After a tough summer, Romney camp needs strong boost from Tampa
  • He says the Republicans must project messages that restore party's tarnished brand
  • Zelizer says GOP must make effective arguments on the nation's economic woes
  • He also says it's crucial to avoid impression that the party is run by its extreme wing

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- The stakes are high for Republicans at this week's convention. As the delegates gather in Tampa,the GOP needs to be ready to lay out a set of compelling arguments to frame the final months of the campaign.

More Americans will be paying attention to the campaign with the start of the conventions. With a new CNN poll showing that the Republican Party's favorability rating is down to 43 percent, the convention needs to strengthen the party's brand name. And since the convention will be a day shorter because of Tropical Storm Isaac, the GOP needs to make sure that it uses its time well.

If Republicans don't get the arguments right, they could easily miss the post-convention bounce they are counting on to give Mitt Romney some momentum after a rough summer.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Republicans need to make a compelling case that President Barack Obama's policies have failed to revitalize the economy.

Although it is clear that economic conditions are still not good, with slow growth and high rates of unemployment, there are alternative ways in which Democrats will depict this story. They will argue that President George W. Bush's economic policies, as well as the reckless practices of Wall Street, are to blame. In fact, Obama can argue he has done well in preventing catastrophe and that signs of economic improvement are evident.

Democrats might also blame Republican obstruction in Congress as another reason that economic recovery had stalled. Had Republicans not used the debt ceiling to force concessions on spending cuts, Democrats will say, more Americans could be working again.

Obama, Romney locked in a tight race
Rep. Ron Paul: 'You have an obligation'
Prime real estate at GOP convention
Isaac changes GOP convention plans

Republicans, in contrast, will need to do to Obama what Ronald Reagan did to President Jimmy Carter in 1980. They will have to convince American voters that the president's policies are in fact to blame.

Gergen: Election a stark choice on America's future

Reagan brilliantly pointed to Carter's regulatory and fiscal programs in explaining why the nation suffered from economic malaise. While most experts would agree that the problems of the era, such as the energy crisis, were not Carter's fault, Reagan and the GOP made this case well in their campaign.

As Reagan famously quipped, "Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recover is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

It will also be essential for the speakers to offer an alternative path, especially if they don't want to get sidetracked with issues like the Todd Akin controversy.

What Republicans are pushing is economic conservatism -- namely, that tax cuts, deregulation, and spending cuts can improve economic conditions for most in this country. Reagan made this case in 1980 when he pushed for supply side economics as the cure-all solution to malaise. This is much harder to do today, especially because of the financial collapse that came toward the end of Bush's presidency, which for many Americans discredited conservative economic ideas.

With Mitt Romney surrounding himself with many of Bush's economic advisers, he and Paul Ryan will have to more than simply issue vague promises of how cutting and cutting government equates to a bountiful economy given President Bush's record.

Indeed, Democrats will warn that taking so much money out of the economy at this time through government spending cuts will have recessionary effects. If the GOP wants to counteract the image of a party intent on helping the top 1 percent, they need to make these connections for voters.

Unless Republicans want to be painted as extremists, they must rebut the ongoing charge that the party has moved far to the right. The addition of Paul Ryan to the ticket only added fuel to the fire of Democrats who have made this accusation.

Opinion: GOP good for women

The danger for Republicans is great. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide over Sen. Barry Goldwater by connecting him to the far right. Extremism, Johnson revealed, was certainly a political vice.

President Bill Clinton tapped into this playbook in 1996 during his run for reelection when he argued that Sen. Robert Dole, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and the House Republicans were one and the same -- each seeking radical slashes in government that he said would harm middle- and working-class Americans.

One ad flashed the words "Dole," then "Gingrich," then combined them into one before listing all the different policies they wanted to eliminate. "Dole-Gingrich," the ad read, "Against Family Leave. Against a Woman's Right to Chose . . . Cutting vaccines for children. Against the Brady Bill and Assault Weapons ban. Against higher minimum wage. Cutting college scholarships."

Thus far Mitt Romney has had trouble pushing back against these charges. Even though his campaign started with the promise of a Republican who had the best chance to reach the vital center, rather than rival candidates like Newt Gingrich who seemed off center, the dynamics of the campaign have pushed Romney toward pleasing the base and his vice presidential nominee is associated with the tea party wing of the GOP.

Romney can't win if voters in states like Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin see him as off center. In his speech this week he will need to replicate the success of Reagan in his acceptance speech 1980 who, in just a few words, convinced Americans how a politician once seen as to the extreme right was in fact the person who could best unite a divided country.

"This convention," Reagan boasted, "has shown to all America a party united, with positive programs for solving the nation's problems; a party ready to build a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom."

These are the challenges that Republicans face in the coming days and these are the arguments that the GOP must successfully make. If they can do this, they are likely to enjoy a healthy bounce and re-energize a campaign that has languished this summer.

If they don't, they are unlikely to make progress against a president whose tough and aggressive campaign has continually forced Republicans into a defensive position, even with an economy that is still struggling.

 

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT