The Campaign Spot

Future Republican Leaders Need to Sell to Independents and Conservatives Simultaneously

There will be many, many discussions of why Republican candidates performed so poorly in 2006 and in 2008. I will note, however, that there is a brewing sense that blame can be laid at the feet of conservative voices who didn’t “pull their weight” in this two-year-long struggle.

I’m on several conservative blogger e-mail lists where you almost hear people picking up their pitchforks and lighting their torches, eager to storm the castle.

If you think that the reason that the McCain-Palin ticket did not win, and that Republicans lost ground in the House and Senate, were because of insufficient enthusiasm from David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, David Frum, Kathleen Parker, Christopher Buckley, etc., you’re fooling yourself. Not even Colin Powell’s endorsement, in the end, made that much of a difference, if the polls are to be believed.

It’s similar to that anecote of losing your keys in a dark parking lot and looking for them near the streetlight because it’s easier, not because that’s where the keys were lost.

The grumpy conservative columnists are the easiest target, but their role in shaping the national political environment is (no offense to them, since I like most of them) fairly miniscule. In terms of sheer reach, their voices don’t outweigh Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or a Cal Thomas, who appears in about 600 newspapers, last time I checked.

So why did the Republicans lose ground? I don’t agree with everything Frum writes in his book Comeback, but one of the areas I think he’s on solid ground is diagnosing the different priorities between independents and Republicans. Independents are deeply anxious about their health insurance, but health care reform isn’t a topic that really gets the conservative base jazzed, other than opposing HillaryCare. The Republican base is passionate and focused about the war on terror, but independents have largely forgotten that there is a war going on. (If something blows up tomorrow, this phenomenon will change in a hurry.) Independents and centrists feel great economic anxiety and a sense that their wages are not keeping pace with the costs of modern life; conservatives generally nod when a Republican says “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

The faces of the Republican party, be it the leaders in Congress, the new RNC chairman, some future candidate or some outside voice has to be able to speak to both groups’ concerns fluently. In McCain, the party had a candidate who couldn’t speak to the independents’ concern well (how often did he explain his health care plan in detail?) and who couldn’t speak to conservatives as well as Palin. In the end, John McCain spoke most frequently and eloquently about that which stirred John McCain — i.e., the outrages of federally-funded planetarium projectors in Chicago and bear DNA research in Montana.  

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