Pope Francis' Blueprint for Republican Rebranding

Pope Francis' Blueprint for Republican Rebranding
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President Obama emerged smiling—and unscathed—from his Vatican visit Thursday. Pope Francis steered clear of areas where the two men are not simpatico, notably abortion and U.S. militarism. Likewise, the pope was gracious enough not to ask whether his guest’s 2012 conversion on gay marriage was prompted by election-year expedience.

Instead, the pontiff who has taken the world by storm gave Obama a copy of “The Joy of the Gospel,” which Francis released in November signaling his commitment to evangelism and an increased focus on the poor. Gift-giving between popes and presidents is a time-honored tradition, and it brought to mind George W. Bush’s 2004 visit to Rome.

The story line in the international media before that trip was Pope John Paul II’s intention of reminding Bush that the Vatican had opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and lamenting the “deplorable events” at Abu Ghraib prison.

The infirm pontiff did indeed read his prepared text with those criticisms. But after listening respectfully, Bush presented John Paul with a Presidential Medal of Freedom while praising him as a “son of Poland who became a bishop of Rome and a hero for our time.”

The pope beamed in response, and Bush political aide Karl Rove—who dreamed up the presidential medal gambit—came outside afterward and all but jumped in the air and clicked his heels in front of the Swiss Guard.

Today, however, the Grand Old Party has worse problems than in 2004, and outfoxing the press at a photo-op isn’t going to get the job done.

Although Republicans believe they are poised to do well in the 2014 midterm elections, their long-term trends are not encouraging. The party’s favorability rating hovers below 40 percent, its activist base is split between feuding social conservatives and economic conservatives (GOP liberals and moderates being in short supply), and no clear Republican presidential contender has emerged. The party’s demographic problems are so stark that it’s unclear whether Republicans can attract enough women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans or young people to forge a majority in a national election—something they’ve accomplished only once in the last six presidential elections. Speaking about his party’s image problem, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus says, “We’ve done a really lousy job of branding and marketing who we are.”

No kidding. The perception is that the party is too old, too white, too conservative, too religious, too Southern, too straight, and too obsessed with sexual mores. Since Obama’s 2012 re-election, numerous columns, books, academic panels, and blue ribbon commissions—Priebus appointed one of his own—have rummaged for ideas on GOP “rebranding.” Instead, they should simply emulate Pope Francis.

When he became pope last year, the Roman Catholic Church was also reeling. The dominant story lines were the long-running child sex abuse scandal and sordid tales of chicanery at the Vatican Bank.

Today, the dominant story is a revitalized church led by a charismatic pope who is bringing lapsed Catholics back into the fold and earning the admirations of Jews, Protestants, Muslims, even non-believers. A recent Gallup Poll shows the pope with a 76 percent favorable rating in the United States—with only 9 percent of respondents unfavorable. No American political figure, not even the extremely popular Michelle Obama, racks up numbers like that. Republicans with presidential ambitions should take heed.

“He has rebranded Catholicism,” wrote Jesuit priest Thomas Reese. “Business schools could use him as a case study.”

So how did a 77-year-old Argentine priest named Jorge Mario Bergoglio make himself into the second coming of Francis of Assisi  and rebrand his venerable denomination in the process? Let’s count the ways, and consider how Republicans could follow his lead, starting with materialism. In the last presidential election, the Republican nominee was perceived as an out-of-touch rich guy. How did he respond? By talking almost exclusively about economics while often reminding voters how wealthy he was. He mentioned his wife’s two Cadillacs, told a heckler “corporations are people, my friend,” and once said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.”

The Vatican is rich, too, but this pope decries the “slave labor” mentality when a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh kills low-wage workers, and says that a culture that throws away so much food is “stealing from the hungry.”

To Rush Limbaugh this smacks of socialism, but Republicans could learn many lessons from Pope Francis. Here are three: political flexibility, public communications, and personal humility.

Flexibility: Despite the church’s rigid orthodoxy, Francis has jump-started the conversation on a host of issues—without instituting doctrinal changes. For starters, he initiated an inter-church discussion of whether divorced Catholics can receive Holy Communion. “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect,” he said, “but a powerful medicine for the nourishment of the weak.”

He simultaneously underscored the church’s opposition to abortion (linking it directly to his concern for the weakest members of society), while downplaying the church’s opposition to gay rights. “If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” He’s made similar gestures toward atheists and Muslims.

Communications: Paul Vallely, the pope’s best biographer , notes that when asked about gay marriage or divorce—or even legalized abortion—Francis tells interviewers that they are not asking the right question. “Some interviewers will be like a terrier with a bone and stick with it,” Vallely notes. “But some will say, ‘Okay, what is the right question?’ and Francis’ reply is that the overwhelming message of the Gospel is love and compassion and including people—and that in the past, the Catholic Church has been excluding people.”

Humility: Pope Francis eschewed bright colors for white robes, and wears a simple metal cross and tells time with a plastic Swatch. He doesn’t take “selfies,” a la Barack Obama, but he does let teenagers he meets take such pictures of them together.

Such symbols are nice, but Francis’ answer to a question from Antonio Spadaro, editor of a prominent Jesuit journal, got to the crux of things.

“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” he was asked.

“I am a sinner,” the pope replied. “This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

Republicans could use much more of this. At a lengthy press conference to explain why his minions had trapped innocent motorists for hours on a bridge, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, professed himself “embarrassed and humiliated” by what had happened. But he did so without really taking responsibility.

“I am not a bully,” he said. Not hardly “I am a sinner,” but it’s a start.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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