‘The Republican brand is deeply damaged” was a painfully common assessment after the election. A lot of Republicans were eager to blame the party’s thoroughly lousy performance on the presidential nominee, but there is considerable evidence that the unpopularity goes well beyond that: Romney won more votes than GOP Senate candidates in almost all of the swing states — and in some fairly red states, including Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota.
Conservative ideas, though, won in distinctly Democratic-leaning states once the word “Republican” was no longer associated with them. In Michigan, where Obama won handily, a push to enshrine collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution was roundly defeated, 58 to 42 percent. In California, voters rejected a proposition to repeal the death penalty, rejected mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, and also rejected Proposition 38, which would have added funding to education and early-childhood programs by raising taxes on those making as little as $75,000 a year. In Virginia, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment making it tougher for the state government to seize private property under eminent domain — while Romney and George Allen were losing statewide.
So why are Republicans so much less popular than their ideas? A ubiquitous accusation from their Democratic rivals, echoed by an allied media, is that Republicans lack empathy to the point of displaying sheer meanness. With Obama running up huge margins among various demographics — African-Americans, Hispanics, women, young people — the argument is that the GOP increasingly represents an aging, white, bitter, and angry rump of the electorate, lashing out nastily at a world changing too fast for them.
For the sake of argument, let us contemplate why an unaffiliated voter might think Republicans are mean.
The “47 percent”: In Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remarks, the worst line was, “My job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Even if there was some valid lament in there about a culture of dependency, the phrasing was about as harmful as possible, because it suggested that as president Romney wouldn’t “worry” about those people — that is, wouldn’t govern with their needs in mind, because he deemed them uninterested in self-sufficiency.
If you believe that conservative ideas work, you hopefully believe that the formula — a decent education, hard work, prudence, thrift, and a dollop of ambition — can and will work for anyone and everyone. “Some of you people are just hopeless” is an awful political slogan, and one that actually strengthens the case for liberalism: If a significant chunk of the citizenry is indeed unable or unwilling to care for itself — not merely failing to do so in response to incentives created by liberal policies — then some entity must step in to do that, and the state is probably best equipped for this task.
Most conservatives’ objection to the culture of dependency is that it results in a waste of human potential: in jobs gone unfilled, in able-bodied men and women not pursuing something better and not becoming role models for their children because they’ve been conditioned to believe that a government check is the best they can achieve. We hate the culture of dependency because we love those trapped in it and want to see them living better, happier, more fulfilling lives. If we truly hated them, we would want to keep them there.
None of that worldview came through in Romney’s remarks, and they were exacerbated by his post-election remarks summarized here by the Los Angeles Times:
Obama, Romney argued, had been “very generous” to blacks, Hispanics and young voters. He cited as motivating factors to young voters the administration’s plan for partial forgiveness of college loan interest and the extension of health coverage for students on their parents’ insurance plans well into their 20s. Free contraception coverage under Obama’s healthcare plan, he added, gave an extra incentive to college-age women to back the president.
“The president’s campaign,” he said, “focused on giving targeted groups a big gift — so he made a big effort on small things. Those small things, by the way, add up to trillions of dollars.”
In short, Romney concluded that he lost because he couldn’t make a better offer to voters in key demographics who were essentially motivated by laziness and greed.
There’s a word that accurately summarizes the perspective of Republicans who believe that Latinos voted for Obama because they want amnesty for criminals and endless welfare, that young people voted for Obama because they’re ignorant and want free birth control, and that blacks voted for Obama because they wanted free cell phones: contempt. And it’s hard to persuade people to adopt your perspective, join your movement, or vote for your candidate when you speak of them with contempt.
The Sandra Fluke “slut” argument: When Democrats spotlighted Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke for her conviction that employers should be required to provide insurance that covers birth control, it was hard to imagine a more self-destructive reaction than Rush Limbaugh’s initial one:
What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.
Wait, it got worse:
So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.
This was a winnable argument for conservatives: In essence, Fluke expected Catholic institutions to violate their core principles and pay for something they deemed wrong, simply because she really wanted it. But the Right’s legitimate points quickly got drowned out in the brouhaha over Rush’s use of the S-word.
We roll our eyes at the Democratic party’s deification of Fluke, at Obama’s reassuring phone call to her, at her speech at the convention in Charlotte, and at her sometimes sparsely attended appearances on the campaign trail for Democratic candidates. But grassroots conservatives greeted every Fluke appearance like a bull seeing a waving red flag; quite a few among us enjoyed bringing back the S-word and mocking her as a nymphomaniac.
To his credit, Rush quickly apologized and said he regretted speaking about Fluke in the highly personalized terms of the Left. The issue never was, or never should have been, her sex life (or even the largely neglected side issue that some women need birth-control medications for health reasons). The issue was government power.
In focusing on the silliness of a law student’s becoming a national voice in the matter of what employers’ health plans should cover, that portion of the Right who mocked Fluke on those grounds undermined themselves: If what she thought and said was really unworthy of the attention it was receiving, why add to it? Their tactic played directly into the Democrats’ narrative about those mean Republicans: Express a view they disagree with and they’ll sneer about your sex life on national airwaves for weeks.
It is here that Republicans usually object that the mainstream media make a big deal out of Republican offenses like Rush’s use of the word “slut” but ignore comparable offenses on the Left. After all, don’t prominent liberals spew bile regularly without consequence? (Well, not always: Ed Schultz used the same word, “slut,” in a furious rant about Laura Ingraham and was suspended for a week without pay.) Entirely separate from the entirely justified fury over media bias is the question of how we want our movement to talk about the issues. If you sneer at people, you cannot expect them to agree with you.
Gay marriage and sexual taboos: It seems to be a knee-jerk, not-really-in-jest comparison when some conservatives discuss the issue of gay marriage: If two men or two women can get married, why not a man and an animal? GOP congressional candidate Bob Guida made the offhand comparison in New Hampshire in 2010; in October 2012, an Illinois state representative made similar remarks at a tea-party rally.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Rick Santorum received criticism for his 2003 comment that “in every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.” Santorum insists that the aim of the comment was to emphasize that he views homosexuality as different from pedophilia and bestiality, but he did bring up those emotionally charged taboo behaviors out of the blue while discussing his objections to gay marriage.
At a recent conservative gathering, one well-known pundit exclaimed, “Why can’t I marry my cat?”
Now, think about how this argument sounds to any gay or lesbian or to anyone who loves them — to their mothers, fathers, brothers, and friends. It takes a consensual relationship that more and more Americans see practiced by their friends, neighbors, and relatives and equates it with criminal acts, among the most reviled in our society. Put another way, if some jerk in a bar came up and compared your relationship to your spouse to bestiality, you would probably be sorely tempted to knock his teeth out.
Are gays and lesbians welcome in the GOP or conservative movement? Arguments and jokes like that send the signal they aren’t.
Abortion and rape: Of all the facets of the abortion debate, the most difficult ones for pro-lifers are the cases of rape or incest or where the life or health of the mother is at stake (a small percentage of all abortions). Many self-described pro-lifers are justifiably hesitant to legally require a woman who has been raped to bring the child of her attacker to term.
Todd Akin and then Richard Mourdock confirmed every wavering woman’s suspicion of pro-life conservatives when the former suggested that he understood nothing about the biology of human reproduction and when the latter contended that rape-generated pregnancy “is something that God intended to happen.” Yes, some women who have been raped have carried the child to term and wonderful people have been born as a result. But many women, maybe most, are horrified by the idea that the law could require rape victims to bear the children of the men who assaulted them. For a pair of aspiring GOP senators to utter awful comments, colossally devoid of empathy for the victims of rape, cemented the image of a party so mean they couldn’t even remember to mention the plight of the mother.
The incentives of controversy: For some of the most prominent figures associated with the GOP and with conservatism, controversy is almost always a good thing. Controversy turns heads, gets people tuning in, talking about them, builds ratings. But controversy alone does not necessarily persuade.
Perhaps the most vivid example of that comes from Ann Coulter, who has insisted that it’s acceptable to use the term “raghead” in discussions of the Muslim world. She used it at the 2005 Conservative Political Action Conference, and the next year a Muslim-American conservative begged her to stop: “It kind of turns a lot of Muslim Americans off, and it’s kind of hard to recruit them.” She replied, “I made a few jokes, and they killed 3,000 Americans — fair trade.”
Coulter and other reliable sources of controversy will cite the long American tradition of provocative speech and insist that there’s a raw, “tell it like it is” honesty in such comments. But what hard truth or deep intellectual insight is brought to the table by the term “raghead”? Would we on the right be so casual about a term that mocked yarmulkes or crucifixes? (In South Carolina’s 2010 gubernatorial primary, a GOP state legislator used the term “raghead” in referring to the president and Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate of Indian descent.)
In the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in 2009, controversy erupted over aspiring chairman Chip Saltsman’s sending RNC members a CD that included satirist Paul Shanklin’s song “Barack the Magic Negro,” a reference to the Hollywood trope of a mystical African-American character who provides advice and ancient wisdom to a white protagonist. That explanation was lost in much of the controversy. When trying to persuade skeptical African-Americans that the GOP really understands the problems facing them, do we want to spend a lot of time insisting that there’s nothing even vaguely offensive or off-key about a potential party chairman distributing material that includes the antiquated term “Negro”?
Did Romney lose the election because of these long-ago controversies? No, but each time someone associated with the Right blurts out something like this, it adds a little fuel to the fire of the argument that Republicans don’t respect, understand, or welcome minorities.
In each one of these cases, the GOP and the Right have to think hard about whether this is the hill they want to die on. If you’re a wishy-washy, not-that-tuned-in, relatively apolitical voter, how do these controversies make you feel about Republicans?
Certainly, the media employ double standards in their decisions about which cases of meanness and nastiness are most newsworthy, and we cannot expect a movement made up of millions of people to avoid uttering repellent comments. But for some conservatives, at least every once in a while, those labels “mean” and “nasty” are well earned.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.