Now that the dust has settled on the 2010 midterm elections, it’s slowly becoming clear just how monumental the results really are. We saw an extreme left-wing agenda suffer a crushing defeat. At the ballot box, voters took Obamacare and the stimulus and wrapped them right around the necks of those same House members and senators who had arrogantly dismissed the concerns voiced in countless town halls and Tea Party rallies up and down the country. Voters sent commonsense conservatives a clear mandate to hold the line against the Obama agenda.
Does that mean Republican candidates can look forward with greater confidence to the 2012 elections? Yes and no. Yes, objectively speaking the next electoral cycle should be even more favorable than the one that just ended. A large number of red-state Democratic senators will have to defend their seats; and since Obama will be at the top of the ballot that year, they won’t be able to hide from the fact that their party leader is a detached liberal with a destructive tax-and-spend agenda. Whether Republicans will do as well as they did in this cycle depends on whether they learn the lessons from the 2010 election.
The first lesson is simple: Set the narrative. This year it wasn’t too difficult to tell the story of the election: It was about stopping an out-of-control Congress and an out-of-touch White House. In races across the country, Republican candidates ran on the message that the Left was bankrupting America with budget-busting spending bills that mortgage our children’s future, burden the private sector with uncertainty, and cripple our much-needed job growth.
The story of the next cycle, though, remains to be written. Its content depends on what Republicans do next. Just as in the 1980s, there are today millions of conservative-leaning Democrats and independents who are ready to join our cause. They gave us their votes, now we must earn their trust. And we do that by showing them that a vote for us will not be a vote for the big-spending, over-regulating status quo. The 2012 story should be about conservatives in Congress cutting government down to size and rolling back the spending, and the Left doing everything in its power to prevent these necessary reforms from happening. In the next two years, if all we end up doing is adopting some tax hikes here, some Obama-agenda compromises there, and a thousand little measures that do nothing to get us out of the economic mess we’re in, the same voters that put the GOP in office will vote them out in the next election. If that happens, the story of 2012 may well be that of the GOP going the way of the Whigs. No, the American people are expecting us to be bold and big in our economic reform to allow the private sector to create jobs and soar!
In the coming weeks, there will be those who lament that some of us endorsed conservative Republicans over liberal ones in blue-state races. It’s a good debate, and one I’m willing to have. First, we must keep in mind that there is no guarantee that any Republican will win in a deep-blue state (as evidenced by the exit polls in Delaware showing that the liberal Republican would have lost too). But even more to the point, we saw in the last decade what happens when conservatives hold their noses and elect liberals who have an “R” after their names. Our party’s message of freedom and fiscal responsibility became diluted. In 2008, it was difficult to claim on the one hand that we were the party of fiscal responsibility and on the other hand that our fiscal policies work. It was clear to the electorate that the GOP had not adhered to fiscally conservative positions, and that the liberal positions they did adhere to didn’t work. If we go on in that direction again, we won’t have a base, let alone a majority. Certainly we can and should back sensible center-right candidates in bluer states, but I see no point in backing someone who supports cap-and-tax, Obamacare, bailouts, taxes, and more useless stimulus packages. If you think such a candidate will be with us when it comes time to vote down an Obama Supreme Court nominee, you’re living on a unicorn ranch in fantasy land.
In the coming weeks there will also be a debate about the viability of particular candidates. Anyone with the courage to throw his or her hat in the ring and stand up and be counted always has my respect. Some of them were stronger candidates than others, but they all had the courage to be “in the arena.” The second lesson of this election is one a number of the candidates had to learn to their cost: Fight back the lies immediately and consistently. Some candidates assumed that, once they received their party’s nomination, the conservative message would automatically carry the day. Unfortunately, political contests aren’t always about truth and justice. Powerful vested interests will combine to keep bad candidates in place and good candidates out of office. Once they let themselves be defined as “unfit” (decorated war hero Joe Miller) or “heartless” (pro-life, international women’s rights champion Carly Fiorina), good candidates often find it virtually impossible to get their message across. The moral of their stories: You must be prepared to fight for your right to be heard.
Another important lesson is that we will need the mother of all GOTV efforts if we wish to win in 2012. Sending donations isn’t enough when push comes to shove. Millions of boots on the ground are needed, and voter-fraud prevention must be addressed before election eve.
The last, and possibly most important, lesson is that a winning conservative message must always be carefully crafted. If candidates are going to talk boldly on the campaign trail about entitlement reform and reducing the size of government, they must be prepared to word it in such a way as to minimize the inevitable fear-mongering accusations of “extremism.” We are quickly approaching a fiscal turning point where these crucial reform discussions will be mandatory. We need to speak about them in a way that the public will embrace. During his first run for the presidency in 1976, Ronald Reagan found out that election campaigns aren’t necessarily the best settings for quasi-academic discussions about issues like Social Security reform. So for his next campaign, he resolved to build his platform out of tried and tested policies like tax cuts. Successful candidates in the next election cycle will have to test and develop similar policy platforms that address the crucial issues of entitlement reform and shrinking government in a way that the voters will find pragmatic and even attractive.
If we manage to do these things, there is no reason why we can’t look forward with confidence to winning in 2012. I have said all along that this election must be seen in conjunction with the next. Ultimately 2010 must be viewed as just the first battle in a much longer fight that leads to November 6, 2012, and beyond. We cannot fully restore and revive America until we replace Obama. The meaning of the 2010 election was rebuke, reject, and repeal. We rebuked Washington’s power grab, rejected this unwanted “fundamental transformation of America,” and began the process to repeal the dangerous policies inflicted on us. But this theme will only complement the theme of 2012, which is renew, revive, and restore. In 2012, we need to renew our optimistic, pioneering spirit, revive our free-market system, and restore constitutional limits and our standing in the world as the abiding beacon of freedom.
Till then, I hope that commonsense patriots will join me in applauding the real heroes of this election year: the Tea Party Americans. In 2008, we were told that we had to “move beyond Reagan.” Well, some of us refused to believe that America chose big-government European-style socialism. American voters elected a politician who cloaked his agenda in the language of moderation. Once the mask was removed, Americans rejected his “fundamental transformation.” The Tea Party reminded us that Reaganism is still our foundation. I think the Gipper is smiling down on us today waving the Gadsden Flag.
— Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, was the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president.