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As the conservative camp begins its soul searching on what caused the Republican Party's humiliating loss in last week's presidential contest, two competing arguments have emerged: some say the problem was with the candidate (Mitt Romney), others say the problem was with the Party itself. How Republicans proceed in the future may depend on how they answer this question. For the 2016 election, do Republicans just need a better candidate, or does the Party need fundamental change?
"The truth is, Romney was better than the GOP deserved," opinion writer Kathleen Parker argued, but he was burdened by a Party that pulled him too far to the right.
"Party nitwits undermined him, and the self-righteous tried to bring him down," Parker wrote.
She also blamed the other Republican presidential candidates – Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum – who "embarrassed the party and wouldn't leave the stage."
"We did not have the wrong guy," agreed Timothy Dalrymple, editor of the Patheos evangelical channel.
Arguing that Romney was "the best candidate we've had since Reagan," Dalrymple believes that part of the problem was that the Republican brand was "terrifically damaged, especially with minorities, the young, single women, and the religiously unaffiliated."
David French, also an "Evangelicals for Mitt" member and a columnist for National Review, believes that conservatives still have the better message, but have failed to convince others of that message.
"Our cultural efforts have to be every bit as wide-ranging and persistent as those of the Left," French wrote. "Majority ideologies are built over generations, not overnight, and it means breaking the public-school monopoly, influencing public schools even while we work to diminish their influence, sending our best and brightest young writers and actors into the lion's den of Hollywood, working to reform higher education and breaking the ideological hammerlock of the hard Left on faculties, and working hard – very hard – to tell the true story of conservative compassion for the "least of these," a story featuring the efficiency and creativity of private philanthropy combined with Christ-centered love and concern for the individual."
Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will believes that Romney was a weak candidate selected from a field of even weaker candidates.
Romney's "salient deficiency was not of character but of chemistry, that indefinable something suggested by the term empathy," Will wrote. "Many voters who thought he lacked this did not trust him to employ on their behalf what he does not lack, economic understanding."
Will also argued, though, for changes in Republican messaging and positions on some issues. He believes that Republicans need a more libertarian-leaning candidate for 2016 who is more open to immigration reform, civil unions and marijuana legalization.
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer believes that Republicans need only change their position on one issue – immigration – to become a majority party. If Republicans were to support amnesty for undocumented immigrants combined with border enforcement, Krauthammer predicts, Republicans will not only perform better among Latinos, but will win the Latino vote in 2016.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat agrees that Republicans need to support immigration reform (though does not call for amnesty), but believes that is only half of the equation. Republicans also need an economic agenda that speaks to the concerns of working-class Americans.
Latinos "see government more as an ally than a foe," Douthat wrote. "They can be wooed, gradually, if Republicans address their aspirations and anxieties, but they aren't going to be claimed in one legislative pander."
Republicans, he continued, need policy renewal based upon the issues of crony capitalism, tax policy, education reform, health care, "and many more."
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson blamed both Romney and the Party for the Republican losses.
Romney's problem, Gerson wrote, was that "he lacked a public philosophy that explained government's valid role in meeting human needs." Republicans need a philosophy that expresses the appropriate role of government without bashing it.
"Conservatives will need to define a role for government that addresses human needs in effective, market-oriented ways. Americans fear public debt, and they resent intrusive bureaucracies, but they do not hate government," Gerson explained.
Gerson also took Romney and other Republicans to task for expressing an "exclusion of outsiders."
"The tone was nasty and small," Gerson complained. "Apart from moral objections, this approach is no longer politically sustainable."