The Republican special election loss in Mississippi (and Illinois and Louisiana) is evidence of a much larger problem than just a broken and dysfunctional Republican party. In many respects, the electoral defeats of the purportedly conservative party demonstrate some problems with the conservative movement in general.
Let’s take ’em one by one, the most important first: The limited-government core of the center-right coalition, historically the single largest part, has left it.
Read the commentary, read the excuses about why Republicans lost, and you keep seeing things like “the Democrats won in Louisiana and Mississippi because they ran conservative candidates,” meaning pro-life and pro-gun. That’s all it takes to be a conservative today? Really?
Pro-life and pro-gun fall into the “necessary but not sufficient” category. The problem is, Republicans have so badly bungled or abandoned so many limited-government issues — spending, health care, education, Social Security, and tax reform to name a few — that they have very little left with which to appeal to the largest part of their governing coalition.
Limited-government voters just don’t see a difference between Republicans and Democrats on so many of these critical issues, and our voters don’t turn out for Coke vs. Pepsi. Our voters show up and get engaged when there are big issues and big differences between the two sides. This explains the election losses as well as the massive deficits in enthusiasm and money the Right faces.
But the life/guns dynamic masks a larger problem, bringing us to point two: Even when there are contrasts on life and guns, it shouldn’t be seen as a panacea for Republican candidates. We must put an end to interest-group conservatism.
During his acceptance speech at the ’84 Republican Convention, President Reagan chided Walter Mondale for his interest-group liberalism, noting that Democrats saw people only as members of groups; we see them as individual Americans. We’re now where the Democrats were in ’84. Republicans put folks in neat little issue and demographic groups — guns, life, taxes, women under 40, men over 55, etc. — then go down the list checking boxes and think they have them in their camp.
Republican candidates come to election time and believe they’re going to be successful because they sent a pro-life mail piece to their pro-life list. The candidates forgot: The voters are Americans. They have hopes, fears, dreams, beyond any interest-group box any candidate wants to put them in.
Though voters may well be pro-life and pro-gun, in many cases those issues are not their voting issues right now. In 2006, millions of strongly pro-life and pro-gun Americans voted for very liberal Democrats, and they are poised to do so again in 2008. Concerns about Iraq, the economy, Republican scandals, incompetence, and overall lack of principle are winning out.
As a movement we must get back to speaking broadly to Americans about the things that concern them. As a sign of the times, compare the Reagan ’84 convention speech with President Bush’s in ’04; the contrast is stark.
The Bush ’04 speech reads in many parts like a State of the Union speech, full of policy minutiae, designed to appeal to this or that interest group or voting demographic. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan talking about increasing funding for community colleges in a convention speech? He talked of big things.
Even many usually astute conservatives have led the effort to try and buy off blocks of voters rather than appeal to big issues with broad appeal. Pork-barrel tax breaks have taken precedence over pro-growth, pro-job tax cuts or fundamental tax reform. Efforts to cut spending and reform entitlements have been dismissed because of the supposed lack of political appeal.
We’re supposed to make up for our losses among middle-class, limited-government voters by bringing in more lower-middle-class voters who sympathize with Republicans on cultural issues but not on the economic side. This is basically the George Wallace playbook without the racism. Economic populism is no basis for a successful political movement, as Wallace, Perot, and Buchanan all learned.
Targeting lower-middle-class voters, many of whom already pay no income taxes, with new government subsidies or tax benefits, is a fundamental strategic mistake. Congressional Republicans have already tried to capture these voters with earmarks for local “jobs” projects, the farm bill, and the new prescription-drug entitlement, and look where that has taken them.
Republican candidates and conservatives generally must, above all else, get back in the persuasion business. This won’t be a base-motivation election, because there aren’t enough people left in the base. It must be a base-expansion election. The challenge for our side is to convince voters that our solutions based on free markets, limited government, and personal responsibility will work better in their lives. It’s the latest battle in a long and difficult war of ideas. The Right is not losing because of our ideas. We’re losing because voters think Republicans have abandoned them. In a bidding war with Democrats, we will always lose.
Point three: We must redefine what it means to be a Republican.
In all political movements, there comes a time to take stock. As we did from 1992-94, we must again redefine in the public’s mind what it means to be a conservative and a Republican.
In the aftermath of the debacle that was 1990-1992, conservatives in the House took the lead in this redefinition. Gone were the days of Republicans either cutting deals with Democrats or just voting no. They began laying out conservative policy alternatives to address major issues, a process that ultimately resulted in the Contract with America.
Right now, most people couldn’t tell you what it means to be a Republican, or what John McCain stands for other than continuing the war in Iraq. That’s not to say that there aren’t good ideas floating around (amongst the many bad ones), but they haven’t been presented in any sort of consistent, coherent way.
One of the fundamental Republican mistakes, led also by House Republicans, was in adopting the Tip O’Neill mantra of “all politics is local” following the 1998 election losses and Clinton impeachment. Rather than pushing big ideas, they began focusing on “accomplishments” — that’s earmarks to you and me — and gave up on seriously pursuing the Big Four limited government reforms that everyone knows are necessary and politically potent (tax reform, Social Security reform, health care reform, and education reform).
Conservatives who are genuinely interested in creating a 21st-century, limited-government conservative movement must pursue these big issues even though they are hard. Defeating Communism and reforming welfare were hard, but conservatives vigorously pursued them over a period of decades, not just an election cycle or two. They were the right policies and they paid political dividends, because in the process, we defined ourselves and the liberals.
Finally, the Right must accept the fact that rebuilding can be painful in the short term.
We have to make investments in building a movement again. That means going out and organizing from the ground up, as we did once upon a time. Technology can make this simpler and more efficient, but in reality it’s time consuming, labor intensive, and costs some money. Perhaps that’s why liberal organizations have invested in it so heavily over the past few years, especially in the suburbs.
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. Conservatives would be wise to remember that we’re going to get out of the process what we put in. If we put serious work effort behind our ideas, we’ll get the results we’ve been waiting for. If we leave things to the politicians we’ll get more of the same, and that’s what we’ll deserve.
– Pat Shortridge is President of New Majority Project.