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A.R. Bernard Headshot

"Righting" the GOP

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My American journey has taken many twists and turns. From Panama, where I was born -- to Bed-Stuy where I moved at age four -- to my days as an entrepreneur and banker -- to my role as husband, father, grandfather -- and to my calling as an ordained minister leading the largest church in New York City with 37,000 congregants -- I count every blessing.

I am also a committed Republican. But I am a Republican who has grave concerns about the GOP's future.

What happened to the party of Lincoln? To the party that abolished slavery and championed a woman's right to vote? To the party of Reagan who ended the Cold War and revitalized a moribund economy? To the party of George H. W. Bush who passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990?

What happened to the party of ideas?

New and innovative ideas win elections. The GOP will not win elections on a platform of restoring the past. This is the 21st century and things have changed. We are no longer the country we were under Reagan or even George W. Bush.

If the GOP hopes to become relevant again, it needs more than a re-branding effort. As RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said when he came to my church in Brooklyn earlier this year, the Party needs to listen to everyone, not just the base.

Within 24 hours of Priebus' visit, I sat down at the same table with Al Sharpton -- with whom I disagree on many issues, but I respect and listen to him. Creating a dialogue with people who espouse opposing ideology helps us understand not only our position, but forces us to consider, buttress, and defend our own ideals as well.

It also is a source of new ideas and finding common ground that we would otherwise not know existed.

The GOP has become complacent and unwilling to adapt. They think that the election of President Obama was an anomaly -- a political fluke; they are wrong. His reelection is a wake-up call. Our Party leaders need to rethink their messages and implement new policies that reflect and respond to the changing demographics of America.

A smart three-pronged GOP strategy will help attract new voters, win over those we have lost, and maybe even convert some from the Democratic side of the aisle.

First, the Republican Party must develop and pass comprehensive immigration reform. President Bush, in fact, tried to accomplish this with the McCain/Kennedy bill. He had the full support of Democrats; it was his own party that stopped him.

Since then, Latinos -- the fastest growing demographic in the country -- have turned away from the GOP in significant numbers. We need to win them back -- something we will never do with the Party's current hard line stance, tough rhetoric, and perceived intolerance. Republicans must be willing to reevaluate their outlook and offer a reasonable bipartisan pathway to citizenship.

Second, the long-held GOP concepts of limited government and self-reliance truly resonate in rural areas of our country, but less so in urban areas where government provides considerably more services at greater costs to taxpayers.

Over the course of time, our citizens have relocated to the cities. According to census data, the nation was approximately 20 percent rural in 2000. Today, less than 14 percent reside in those areas. So when Republicans advocate a message of low taxes, we must be mindful of this migration. We must develop creative ways to lower taxes without cutting vital programs or services that so many millions of Americans rely on for basic survival.

Finally, the GOP is lost and fragmented. There is division within -- the Tea Party, libertarians, Christian Conservatives, neocons, paleocons -- are all at each other's throats. Whereas Reagan was able to unite these groups into a coalition, we have become a patchwork party with each subgroup refusing to put petty squabbles aside to fight the larger war. From taxation and foreign policy to social issues, the party's conservatives clash with the moderates -- and in a very public way.

We must establish a core message around our centrally-held values: limited government, limited taxation, personal responsibility and economic empowerment. Only then can we begin to build momentum.

The GOP spends too much time defending itself against what it is not rather than asserting its core values. If we are to assume the mantle of power and lead this country once again to greatness, we must decide who we are and let America know in one clear, loud voice.