Back in the 1980s, conservatives were always going on about how they had found new paradigms for the future against the outdated, statist forms of the past. It has been a long time since the last conservative paradigm, and now we are the ones with the outdated model for reaching the public.
The top Republican consultants of today are Baby Boomers like Karl Rove and Mike Murphy. They came into politics in the 1970s and 1980s when conservatives really were on the cutting edge of fundraising and using television. The world has moved on from them, but conservatives don’t have any newer, better models for reaching the public.
The super PAC strategy that Rove and Murphy have used in the last two election cycles was larger scale versions of those that were first developed in the late-1970s by independent political action committees. These ads used political rhetoric in common usage (peace through strength, soft on crime, whatever) and added atmospherics to accentuate the point.
The key to the success of those ads was a shared understanding with the audience. The audience already knew what you were talking about, and the atmospherics (an couple getting married, an unflattering photo of the opposition candidate) provided the emotional punch. The very best of these ads didn’t require any explicitly political content. The audience could be trusted to get the message entirely through the use of metaphor.
We are in a different place now. Rove wasted $300 million in the 2012 cycle trying to get general election voters to oppose Obama. Murphy is in the process of wasting over $100 million trying to get Republican primary voters to support Jeb Bush.
The old political shorthand no longer works. It means nothing to Millennials. It means nothing to voters who immigrated to the US post-1980 and it means nothing to those voters’ children. That doesn’t mean that these voters are on the left. Many of them might be skeptical of tax increases, and they might start with the presumption that late-term fetuses are human beings, but they have no connection to the old political clichés. Cutting taxes to revive the economy is something that rich people say – and only about cutting taxes on rich people. The locution “culture of life” is something they have never heard from anybody they know. The old conservative political shorthand is immediately tuned out.
Rove’s 2012 anti-Obama ads were terrible, but better atmospherics would not have saved them. It was a rhetorical error to have old, affluent white people attack Obama on the economy, but even if the words had been spoken by young nonwhites, the complaints would still have been incomprehensible to large (and growing) swaths of the public.
We need to slow down. We can no longer assume that people know what we are talking about. The voters that we need might have partially overlapping policy preferences with conservatives, but they don’t know it, and the language we use (even the language of establishment Republicans who can’t shut up about how inclusive they are) is repellent.
These voters think that conservatives (even – especially – upstanding establishment Republicans like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush) are ignorant and hostile to their interests. They have never heard a reasonable conservative argument for anything. They have only heard incomprehensible clichés that were designed to manipulate different people from a different generation.
On some level, conservatives of various stripes know this. They know the old rhetoric isn’t working. That is why they are gravitating to hyper-articulate candidates like Cruz and Rubio, or well-meaning outsiders like Ben Carson. A great speaker will make them listen, or else Ben Carson’s biography will convince where arguments fail.
This is exactly backwards. Rubio, whatever his rhetorical talents, should not be burdened with introducing a whole new health care policy to the country, and defending that policy from the distortions of liberals and the mainstream media (but I repeat myself.) It is too much.
The first step is getting the voters to understand that conservatives actually have solutions to their concerns. If the public had some idea of conservative-style health care reform, it would make it easier for conservative candidates (whether smooth talkers like Rubio or pedestrian speakers like Romney) to build on that understanding. It would also make it more difficult for liberals to demonize these proposals.
Between Rove in the 2012 cycle, Murphy in the 2016 cycle, and the money donated to the various Carson organizations, around $500 million will have been spent and nobody will have been convinced of anything. Not one extra person will know about the abortion extremism of the national Democratic Party. Not one extra person will have been reassured that the repeal of Obamacare would not mean the loss of their health insurance. Not one extra person will have learned about Jim Manzi’s cheaper, more pro-growth ideas for dealing with the risks of climate change. And so we wait on a Republican presidential savior to explain all of that against hostile debate moderators.
It is time to move past the Baby Boomer model of persuasion.