It’s the message, stupid! How do you expect to attract voters when you vilify “takers” (the unemployed, elderly, veterans, disabled), glorify one percent of the population, call your political opponents “mendicants and moochers”, threaten Latinos with the fallout from harsh anti-immigrant laws and try to put government’s nose in the bedroom but keep it out of the boardroom?
Now that the inevitable recriminations and soul-searching about why the Republicans lost the presidential race are in full bloom, we’ll hear that it was:
- Mitt’s fault (too liberal/too conservative/not likable enough/didn’t connect with people like me/ . . .)
- Chris Christie
- Ground game
- Obama’s organization was too good
- Romney’s organization was too centralized
- Campaign funding rules
- Romney didn’t have money at the right time
- GOP couldn’t attract minorities
- GOP didn’t get out their vote
There’s a very good recap of some of the internal warfare in Politico.
In fact, I have heard all of these already and the struggle is just beginning. Each of those may have merit for a few voters and lots of small numbers make big numbers. That was a strength of Obama’s campaign. But they are also largely technical issues about the mechanics of campaigning and identifying people who will support your side. It seems to me there is a simpler lesson. Ready? Have a message that attracts more voters!
Starting with the primaries, the GOP pushed a relentless four-part message of
- strict social conservatism including tough anti-immigrant positions;
- strict fiscal position (spending reduction with no tax increases – cut, cap and balance);
- strong defense, meaning more defense spending in most cases;
- small government.
Most of the electorate can afford to support each of these or not. The first problem for the party is that candidates had to be strictly observant of all four or they could not get the nomination. That means very large segments of the population are already out of reach because they may like some but not all the positions.
The second problem is that the social agenda gets wrapped up with the other three. Social conservatives often seem to blame recipients of government benefits for their need and certainly for expecting the government as opposed to their neighbors to help. Therefore, part of the justification for a balanced budget based on spending cuts alone is that we’re paying too many “takers” to become dependents of the state. There seem to be other social drivers of Republican positions on defense, big government in addition to economic issues. There is a moral absolutist position that is not attractive to people who are otherwise fiscal conservatives. A lot of fiscal conservatives take that position because they believe it is logical, not punitive.
During the presidential campaign, the messages were often stated in harsh and overstated terms. If there is “war on religion”, are devout moderates and liberals the enemy? Which side is going to hell? The mixed social-economic message is targeted at “takers” or the “47%”. The Democrats also had a campaign aimed at the “one percent”. Note to Republican strategists – there are a lot more people to be offended in your “taker” class than in the “one percent”. Steve Schmidt, David Frum and Mike Huckabee have already figured that out. So lighten up on the name calling.
That brings me to the messengers. The “conservative entertainment complex” is in some ways the worst enemy of the Republican party. They promote group think, they make uncompromising and harsh comments about half or more of the country and they demand absolute fealty to their core positions. Other messengers just make the party look foolish – Dr. Paul Broun, House Science Committee (“science is lies from the pit of hell”), Todd Akin – enough said, Michele Bachman, about-to-become-former Representatives Joe Walsh, Alan West and Richard Mourdock. The list goes on.
My advice to my former party is this:
- Stop attacking the recipients of government support as “takers” and recognize that people go through hard times. Some will need government help. The message should be that the government will be there to back them up but also to help them get off the programs if they can and get back to an independent life.
- Reduce the scope of the core message. Don’t try to rope the fiscal conservative message into the social conservative message. It is a distraction. If the Republicans were the party of free enterprise without a distinct social message, it would allow for both social liberals and conservatives to be part of it. It also allows for the much more divisive social issues to be the place where coalitions form across the aisle. Pro-life and pro-choice people don’t line up neatly with fiscal conservatives. Keep a message that is strong on defense but that does not equate strength with more spending. That sounds too much like tax and spend!
- Smaller government follows from intelligent and simple programs that are designed and implemented by grown ups and not by Congress.
- Open your primaries so the candidates you nominate represent the country and not just the extremes of the party. That applies to the Democrats as well!
- Put the idiot wing of the party in moth balls and recruit people who believe in science and understand it. Make it clear that Rush, Ann and Laura are entertainers and not political theorists.
That’s what I think! There is a lot of good and entertaining reporting on how the Republicans should react. If you have any sympathy for them, join the discussion.