REPUBLICANS AND CONSERVATIVES in the 2012 elections got less bang for the buck, and for their time and effort, than they have ever achieved in living memory. Their failure to defeat a severely weakened Barack Obama and their loss of Senate seats in the best environment in years for GOP pickups were failures on an epic scale. Now, against what is likely to be a newly empowered, radical president—bent on leftist “revenge” and untethered by the Constitution—those of us on the right face daunting challenges.
We need a new approach. The biggest change we need, though, isn’t ideological; it’s attitudinal.
The right seems to have forgotten completely how to motivate voters. We fail at the levels of both head and heart. We offer pabulum for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and then wonder why the voters spit it back at us. We speak in clichés and generalities; we run boring advertisements; we take no risks; and we never leave our comfort zones.
No wonder we utterly fail to attract black voters, do increasingly poorly among Latinos—and watch as some 7 million economically disaffected whites, who will vote against the guy in power if they bother to vote at all, instead stay home on Election Day. (For more on that latter topic, see Sean Trende’s Real Clear Politics article two days after the election.) If Republicans/conservatives can’t regain Ronald Reagan’s ability to inspire blue-collar white voters in the Rust Belt and elsewhere, far too many of our candidates will be doomed to oblivion.
To understand how poorly Romney did, consider this: Since 2004, the United States population has grown from 293 million to 312 million. Yet with 19 million more Americans (granted, not all of them eligible voters, but still…), Romney managed to earn about 3 million fewer votes than G.W. Bush did in 2004. Or, looked at another way: Barack Obama lost 7 million votes from 2008 to 2012. An overlapping set of 7 million fewer white voters went to the polls this year. Yet Romney in effect garnered not a single one of them: He did not even exceed John McCain’s already poor vote total nationwide. If our side can’t garner a single extra vote as the population grows by 19 million, or as the Obamites turn off 7 million of their former voters, then we’re doing something very badly. And if we actually are losing votes among Latinos—as has been well documented—then we are doing something very badly. If we lost a net of two Senate seats in a year when Democrats were defending 23 of 33 seats, and defending them almost exclusively in red or purplish states, then we are, yes, doing something very, very badly.
ONE THING that our consultant-led candidates do poorly is actually explain solutions to voters as if the voters have brains. Granted, a whole lot of “low-intensity” voters may be somewhat ill-informed, vote on “impressions,” and may be susceptible to false narratives. Still, the Republican approach seems to be to try to dumb down the GOP message to reach these voters, rather than to give them the tools to understand our real argument. It’s the difference between addressing people as dimwits and addressing them as jurors: Most voters at least like to think they are considering evidence in each candidate’s favor.
Conservative sophisticates might scoff at some of Frank Luntz’s focus groups, but in one key respect those groups repeatedly provided the same message. One smart reader accurately noted this in a letter to me shortly after the election:
The general consensus of the group was, “I’m not happy with Barack Obama, but I want to know what will Mitt Romney do for me.” I think a lot of conservatives stopped listening after the first half of the answer, and our candidate never successfully answered the last part. A lot of those people stayed home, too.
The second thing missing from consultant-speak is real heart or compassion. No, I’m not talking about using the slogan of “compassionate conservatism” or about equating compassion with government spending. Instead, what Republicans need is real empathy. How often did Mitt Romney talk about “small businessmen,” compared to how seldom he talked about “workers”? More importantly, how seldom do our candidates or their consultants ever talk directly, apart from campaign events, to blue-collar workers? Likewise, how seldom do they go into black communities, or Latino communities, and actually hold conversations? And how few of our candidates have actually volunteered in their private lives at soup kitchens, or at community work days, or in ongoing outreach efforts through their churches?
The goal is not to change our principles to pander to new constituencies by adopting positions we know are wrong; the goal is to actually listen to different constituencies; “learn their language” (figuratively speaking); and, more than language, learn what their real concerns and lives are like.
If we are going to say that the best solutions to their difficulties can only tangentially be provided by government, then we must first understand their difficulties and, second, offer other good solutions and explanations of the same.
THOSE POINTS ASIDE, none of us should assume that we find ourselves in yet another “normal” cycle in which we just need to regroup and reload. Barack Obama is not a normal politician. He’s out for blood—or, as he told voters in the last days before the election, for “revenge.” He was re-elected by running the most vicious, vile, mendacious, and, on a lower plane, just plain crass campaign most of us have ever seen, cheapening the office he holds in trust for the republic. Unmoored from the need for re-election, he will show more “flexibility” to Vladimir Putin, issue more executive orders and administrative fiats regardless of constitutional restraints, and tip the judiciary so much that his constitutional abuses will not be reined in. His Justice Department and IRS will continue to stack the deck and, worse, hound conservative organizations with spurious “investigations,” fines, and possibly worse. The man is playing for keeps, and so are his propaganda storm troops in the establishment media.
Right-leaning Supreme Court justices, in response, need to undertake fitness regimens so they can keep their health for four more years. Right-leaning politicians must keep their noses clean, because any and all weaknesses will be exposed and exploited. And right-leaning activists must demand candidates who are not just philosophically solid, but also smart, canny, and tough.
The economy will tank—and Obama will use that as an excuse to create even more government dependents. Our allies, especially Israel, will be forsaken—and Obama will use their troubles as an excuse to cede more ground (figuratively speaking) to the adversaries who hate both them and us. Our military will continue to be gutted—and Obama will use our newfound weakness as an excuse to relinquish American sovereignty.
The entirety of both the political and societal playing fields will be altered, and our side will be demonized every time we dare set foot in the arena.
The only way to fight back against these abuses will be to win the allegiances of large—not narrow—public majorities. And to win those allegiances, conservatives must move well outside of our comfort zones, not just in terms of whom we talk to, but also in terms of whom we hire as consultants, where we advertise, and how we build our coalitions.
Meanwhile, we may need to pick our battles. Even with a Republican House majority protected via clever redistricting, we won’t be able to fight on every front. We might need to use flanking maneuvers, political guerrilla warfare, and pinpoint attacks rather than full frontal charges. Yet when it comes to defending the Constitution, or defending truly essential principles, we must be fiercely defiant against anything Obama throws at us. If this man in the Oval Office truly wants to transform America rather than just reform it, he must be resisted with every legal weapon we can muster.
YOU WANT SPECIFICS? Specific issues have been begging to be used for years. Eminent domain. School choice. Voter ID. Parental choice for abortions. Race-neutral justice. Conservative judges. Law and order (not just against crime, but also against prosecutorial abuse). Repeal of mandates that invade basic rights. Ethics.
In one state referendum or another, for almost every one of those issues, voters approved amendments taking the conservative side (or opposed amendments pushed by the left). When elective judgeships were at stake, voters across the country moved courts further rightward. Huge majorities even of ethnic-minority populations support voter ID laws (although conservatives must also work for reforms that make the actual process of voting easier and less time-consuming). School choice offers inroads for support from black voters and perhaps especially Latinos. (Pro–charter school amendments passed in Georgia and Washington State.) And an astonishing 82 percent of Virginia voters supported limits on eminent domain.
Here’s something our dull-witted consultants fail to understand: Focusing on one main theme (uh, yeah, we know the economy is bad) does not preclude the use of other issues as honorable wedges to leverage voter turnout among discrete slices of the citizenry who might otherwise stay home. If Romney, for instance, had piggybacked on the eminent domain issue, it might not only have shifted key votes in Virginia but might also have positioned him against big corporations that often are behind municipal land grabs—and, Lord knows, Romney needed to fight the perception of corporate fat cat if he wanted to earn the votes of white laborers in Ohio, who instead just declined to cast ballots.
Conservatives must not delude ourselves: The 2012 elections were a disaster. Barack Obama has the upper hand and will try to use it for terrible ends. But for the many (we’ve all heard them) who say we now are doomed, it’s time to reconsider. We’re not in yet in perdition; we’re retraining ourselves in Valley Forge.