The “Growth and Opportunity Project” report released by the RNC yesterday is getting an unenthusiastic reception. Critics both inside and outside the party have pointed out its unrealistically rosy assessment of the party’s health and focuses on marketing over policy.

The report’s discussion of “non-Republican ethnic groups” also borders on the delusional. A party dominated by Southern white evangelicals is never going to do well among Asian-American and black voters. Period. And support for comprehensive immigration may be a necessary condition of improved showing among Hispanics. But it’s by no means a sufficient one.

So is the report a failure? Actually, it’s no worse and perhaps and bit better than could have been expected.

In the first place, some of the critics seem to have forgotten that the RNC is not a thinktank. Rather, it’s the fundraising and organizational arm of Republican party. The RNC can provide advice, tactical support, and funding to candidates. But it can’t tell them what to think or say, even at the level of general principles.

Expecting policy advice from RNC chairman Reince Priebus, in other words, is like asking the office manager to fill in as CEO. It’s just not his job. And it’s no wonder than he seems uncomfortable in the role. 

Second, many of the paradoxes in the report reflect tensions within the party. As Matthew Continetti has argued, Republicans are caught in a “double bind“: there’s not much they can do to reach new demographics without alienating influential constituencies within the party. That’s another reason the report emphasizes style at the expense of substance. Having failed, (inevitably) to square the political circle, all the RNC can do is encourage candidates to avoid alienating even more voters with ugly and stupid rhetoric that cost the parts Senate seats in 2012.

Finally, the report does represent a step toward reality on two important issues: immigration and gay marriage. I don’t often agree with Jennifer Rubin. But she’s right to argue that Republicans cannot ignore the facts that 11 million illegal immigrants are here and unlikely to leave, and that public support for gay marriage has become overwhelming. Shifts on these issues are not enough in themselves to restore the party. But they would remove two obstacles to the success of appeals outside the dwindling base.

Representatives of that base, such as the Breitbart operation, object that “there is nothing in the report about strengthening the Republican Party’s commitment to conservative principles–the winning formula in 1980, 1994, and 2010.” A bit of scrutiny reveals how foolish this objection really is. The Republican victories of 2010 and 1994 were in midterm elections. Both followed the election of a Democratic president. They also preceded the reelection of the same president two years later. If that’s the result of commitment to conservative principles, then conservative principles are losers in national elections.

But what about 1980? In fact, Reagan’s success that year does tell us something important about Republicans’ prospects, although not what Gipper fetishists imagine. Reagan didn’t win because of his “commitment to conservative principles”.  He won because he was able to convince voters who disagreed with each other on many issues that America would be freer, more prosperous, and more respected under his administration than under his opponent’s. Only a strong candidate can pull off this trick of political alchemy, which Bill Clinton would accomplish for the Democrats twelve years late. And a political talent like Reagan’s or Clinton’s can’t be conjured up by any report.