Politics & Policy

What the GOP Should Do

Check-out line at a North Miami, Fla., Wal-Mart. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Its winning message should begin with a clear-eyed look at the decline in purchasing power.

I was in the Eisenhower Lounge of the National Republican Club, where the executive directors of the RNC, the NSRC, the NRCC, the RGA, and the RSLC called a press conference to announce: The Rs think Republicans are going to win in November.

Mamie Eisenhower in her sweet pink ball gown smiled gently down on the solid show of middle-aged men in suits, blue or grey, and ties ranging from red to auburn (only the NRCC’s Leisl Hickey broke the monotony). While the press turnout is good (the conference closes with a question from Luke Russert), the stories afterward were thin, with the Hill presenting dueling interpretations, “GOP Presents United 2014 Front,” and “GOP Primary Wounds Still Smarting.”

The latter referred to the unforced PR error by the NRSC’s Rob Collins in responding with visible venom to a reporter’s inevitable tea-party question. “The for-profit conservative base here in D.C., we’re never gonna get along with, at least this cycle,” Collins said, before backtracking slightly: “That’s not true, there are some that will have a role to play in the general election. But some of the louder voices, it has not been good for their bottom line to get along with [us], so they choose not to.”

Oops.

The RNC’s Mike Shields smoothly stepped in to credit the Tea Party with engaging and energizing GOP voters, saying, “I bet the Democrats wish they had a Tea Party.”

Apparently, the next best thing to having a Tea Party is throwing a hissy fit, to judge from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Wednesday speech accusing the GOP of putting “women’s fundamental rights on the chopping block,” calling the Hobby Lobby ruling (a lawsuit brought by the Hahn family, not the GOP) “just the most recent battle in an all-out Republican assault on women’s access to basic health care.”

Who would have guessed forcing nuns and Mennonites to pay for abortion pills would rank so high in the Democrats’ priorities?

It’s good to hear official Rs are seamlessly working together in “unprecedented” ways to deliver on the RNC’s autopsy promises after the 2012 election to repair the party’s technical failures. The RNC has recruited 16,630 volunteer precinct captains who live in the communities to help 200 paid staff, including 15 data directors, 30 Hispanic engagement officers, and 15 African-American and eight Asian-American engagement staff, all of whom have as their primary goal turning out 10 million “low-propensity Republican voters.”

The winds are at the GOP’s back as Obama’s popularity sinks, his aloofness grows, the economy stalls, and the historic sixth-year pickup by the party out of power kicks in. Republican voters are much more motivated, the generic preference is now split, and the Dems have too many seats to defend.

The assembled Republican-party firepower is patting themselves on the back for working together, but the elephant in the room — well, actually, this being the Republican club, there are lots of elephants lining the glass-cased shelves in the room – but the really big elephant in the room, which the assembled political hotshots lightly skip by, is the question: What is the Republicans’ winning message? 

The slide that RNC executive director Mike Shields has on GOP polling on voters’ top concerns slides by quickly and is reassuringly vague: the economy, energy, and Obamacare are in the mix, as is “the Democrats’ weakening brand.”

“We have to stop allowing Dems to set false narratives,” said Shields. “Voters aren’t happy with the status quo and are looking for pragmatic solutions. . . . Common themes in the different races make us feel good about where we are headed.” What common themes? Mumble, mumble.

“[We need to offer a] positive agenda that highlights the incompetence of this administration but also highlights an alternative,” Rob Collins said, “and I think every campaign is in the process of developing those thoughts.” He added, “We don’t tell [candidates] what to think. We are making sure they talk in a way that is relevant to their voters.”

Sure, boys.

A hint into the content of the official R campaign arrived in my inbox on Thursday with an RNC talking-points memo on “Mismanagement mess,” which wove the Obamacare rollout, the border crisis, the VA and IRS scandals, and NSA spying into an overarching narrative of Democratic incompetence. “Obama’s Failures to Manage His Own Government Is Dragging Down Democrats in 2014.”

Hmm. Betting the economy is so bad that voters will blame the Dems and offering GOP “competence” as the major theme. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, the Senate Republicans tried to counter the Dems’ imaginary War on Women narrative by offering their own free-market contraception bill, guaranteeing women’s legal right to contraception, and asking the FDA to study dispensing the Pill over the counter.

It indicates, on the part of official Rdom, a certain lack of learning from the Romney campaign’s failure, when Romney’s response to the War on Women meme was to run this abortion ad, whose theme was “Romney supports contraception and even some abortions, unlike those other crazy Republicans” (okay, not an exact quote.)

It would be hard to believe the GOP could blow it in 2014, with the economy, and the world, and the border, and our health-care system all disintegrating while a visibly aloof president watches as his party goes nuts over non-issues like contraception.

But the biggest problem with not running on a clear agenda is not that you can’t sometimes win. In a two-party system, when frustrated and angry voters want to send a message to the party in power, they have no choice but to hand your team a victory.

It’s what happens next that becomes your problem.

You can’t govern on what you didn’t run on.

As we argued last November in “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: Lessons from 2012,” the response of American Principles in Action to the autopsy by the RNC, the GOP’s single biggest need is a clear narrative for why voters are experiencing broad and deep drops in their own families’ standard of living. Massive wage stagnation and climbing health-insurance costs combine with price increases in the things that consume middle- and working-class family budgets: groceries, gas, utilities. Main Street hurts while Obama’s Wall Street favorites feast on government guarantees.

Calling Dems on their imagined pink-elephant threats to contraception, demanding respect for diversity (and nuns), and running ads calling the Democrats on their abortion extremism is the way to win the War for Women. That and beginning to name the pain that all families are feeling.

It’s not “jobs” or “job creation” per se, it is the broad persistent decline in purchasing power that is weighing most heavily on voters’ minds. A good place to start would be describing that concern and explaining it, between now and November, and coming up with something that helps. It is our most urgent need.

— Maggie Gallagher is a fellow at the American Principles Project. Her work can be read at MaggieGallagher.com.

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