The Iraq War, the financial crisis, and other issues specific to the late Bush years obviously did play a huge role in the 2006 and 2008 defeats. But it’s also true that Republicans weren’t even arguing that they had a domestic agenda that would yield any direct benefits for most voters, and that has to have hurt them. Taxes had been the most powerful economic issue for Republicans for a generation, but Republicans misunderstood why. In the ’80s and ’90s, Republicans ran five presidential campaigns promising to make or keep middle-class taxes lower than they would be under Democrats, and won four of them. In 2008 they made no such promise but did say they would lower the corporate tax rate.
In the exit polls in 2008, 60 percent of voters said that McCain was not “in touch with people like them.” McCain lost 79 percent of the voters who said that. To get a majority of the popular vote, he would have had to win 96 percent of the 39 percent of voters who were willing to say he passed the threshold test of understanding their concerns. It’s amazing he came as close as he did. (Fifty-seven percent of voters said Obama was in touch, and he had to win only 81 percent of them; he got 86 percent.)
In 2012, the exit pollsters asked a different version of the question: “Who is more in touch with people like you?” Obama beat Romney by ten points, even while losing the “better handle the economy” question by one. Romney, unlike McCain, did offer middle-class voters a tax cut, although it’s not clear that this fact made its way through the din of the campaign to register with the voters. His campaign made efforts — sporadic rather than sustained — to make the case that his agenda would deliver stronger growth and higher wages. He rarely suggested it would make health care more affordable.
On only one issue did the campaign consistently make the case that Romney would take specific actions that would yield tangible benefits for most Americans: He would allow energy exploration, which would reduce the cost of living for everyone. He devoted time to that theme in his convention speech, which did not touch on affordable health care, higher wages, or the middle class. The energy argument was sufficiently effective that Obama had to steal some of its rhetoric.
The absence of a middle-class message was the biggest failure of the Romney campaign, and it was not its failure alone. Down-ticket Republican candidates weren’t offering anything more — not the established Republicans, not the tea-partiers, not the social conservatives. Conservative activists weren’t demanding that Romney or any of these other Republicans do anything more. Some of them were complaining that Romney wasn’t “taking the fight to Obama”; few of them were urging him to outline a health-care plan that would reassure voters that replacing Obamacare wouldn’t mean taking health insurance away from millions of people.
Romney’s infamous “47 percent” gaffe — by which he characterized voters who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders and sure Democratic voters, which they aren’t — made for a week of bad media coverage and some devastatingly effective Democratic ads. It was not, however, a line of thinking unique to Romney. It was an exaggerated version of a claim that had become party orthodoxy.
A different Republican presidential nominee might not have made exactly that gaffe, or had a financial-industry background that lent itself to attacks on outsourcing. He would almost certainly have had a similar weakness on economic policy, however, and might have had additional weaknesses too. (Romney at least won independent voters, which it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum having done.) To put it differently: The problem isn’t so much that Romney was vulnerable to a set of attacks that appear to have discouraged working-class whites from voting; it’s that he didn’t have anything positive with which to counter those attacks.
The Republican story about how societies prosper — not just the Romney story — dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator. He, or she, is trying to make a living and support or maybe start a family. A conservative reform of our health-care system and tax code, among other institutions, might help with these goals. About this person, however, Republicans have had little to say.
In the days since the election, Republicans have received (and given one another) a lot of advice: Step up the ground game. Soften on immigration and abortion. Embrace same-sex marriage. Appeal more to single women, Hispanics, and young people. Run the younger, more charismatic candidates Republicans have waiting in the wings. Some of this advice is good, and some of it bad. But the weakness of the Republican party predates the emergence of same-sex marriage as an issue, the development of Democratic micro-targeting strategies, and the growth of the Hispanic vote. And wasn’t Josh Mandel, the losing Ohio Senate candidate, supposed to be one of those great young conservative hopes? However much charisma and brains the next crop of Republicans brings to their campaigns, they need a stronger party.
The perception that the Republican party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms. Hispanics do not vote for the Democrats solely because of immigration. Many of them are poor and lack health insurance, and they hear nothing from the Republicans but a lot from the Democrats about bettering their situation. Young people, too, are economically insecure, especially these days. If Republicans found a way to apply conservative principles in ways that offered tangible benefits to most voters and then talked about this agenda in those terms, they would improve their standing among all of these groups while also increasing their appeal to white working-class voters. For that matter, higher-income voters would prefer candidates who seem practical and solution-oriented. Better “communications skills,” that perennial item on the wish list of losing parties, will achieve little if the party does not have an appealing agenda to communicate.
Despair has led many Republicans to question their earlier confidence that America is a “center-right country.” It is certainly a country that has strong conservative impulses: skepticism of government, respect for religion, concern for the family. What the country does not have is a center-right party that explains how to act on these impulses to improve the national condition. Until it does, it won’t have a center-right political majority either.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor of National Review.