Some postmortem thoughts on what went wrong for Republicans… (other than the mid-September meltdown and the celebrity charisma that surrounded our first serious African-American candidate that together made all else secondary.)
1. Spending. When Republicans spend at rates higher than Democrats they suffer the wage of hypocrisy, and discredit tax cuts, since the public blames lower taxes for mounting deficits even when they have been demonstrably proven to have brought in greater revenue. In the future, conservatives need to forget all the gobbly-gook about deficits being tolerable as this or that percentage of GDP– and just balance the budget, since the public deals in psychology and symbolism as much as abstract economic data.
2. People. Conservatism means an allegiance to past values and behavior. When the Republican Congress not only spent lavishly, but was marked by a series of scandals–Foley, Cunningham, Stevens, et al.– then Republicans lost that high ground as well. Conservative reconstruction must focus on being above the ethical norm, not indistinguishable from corrupt career politicians. By the same token, highly-visible appointments of incompetent sycophants like Press Secretary Scott McClellan or “Brownie” at FEMA remind voters that conservatives have standards no different from the alternative when they claim otherwise.
3. Populism. Joe the Plumber caught on because (finally) the case was made that confiscatory tax rates (40% on top income, 15.3% FICA/Medicare, once caps removed, 5-10% state income tax) mean that none of us can hope to have the financial success guaranteed to others by birth.
Down-to-earth, Fargo-talking Palin was a missed opportunity because almost immediately for some reason she was served up to the DC press in gottcha interviews and caricatured as a hockey-mom bimbo by NY-DC grandees of her own party. Eisenhower and Reagan worked because they were able to show the people that they came from, and were one with, them, and convince the people that they did better even when the rich were better off as well. The critical argument that the liberal party is now anti-populist and mostly one of the largely affluent who want government to enact a boutique, utopian social agenda, and the poor who want redistribution and guaranteed government 24/7 attention, was never seriously made.
PS. I think out-of-power conservatives have a real opportunity to show that they will express differences in a professional, constructive fashion that puts the country first and politics second, and that was not always true of the last eight years when we got everything from the Knopf novel Checkpoint to the Gabriel Range film to the (failed) effort to rename a sewer plant after the President.