So many lessons arise from Tuesday’s Massachusetts Miracle that it’s almost foolhardy to concentrate on just one. Almost, but not quite. In truth, one lesson should cut through the tactical clutter of whether health care or national security was more important, or whether an old truck or Fenway Park or likeability made a difference, or whether one particular slice of the electorate (Reagan Democrats, soccer moms, Bobos in Paradise…whatever) holds the key to future electoral success. All of that clutter is just data, not a lesson; information, not wisdom.
Instead, the one most important lesson is this: Political elites are often blind to political possibilities.
Too many professional pols and pollsters, consultants and consiglieres, allow their assessment of political potential to be hamstrung by conventional wisdom and by past results. Especially on the right of center, the political class in Washington consistently underestimates what can be achieved by solid principles well communicated. Washington Republicans especially act too often as if they expect to lose and are resigned to losing, just a little more slowly.
They act as if they really can’t win by cutting government — even though they did win again after cutting government in 1995 and 1996. And after cutting government (yes, Ronald Reagan really did make budgetary progress) in 1981-1984.
They act as if standing strong for conservative judges, or for traditionalist positions on social issues, is an occasional bone to toss to a snarling “base,” rather than the majority-backed positions that they are. Never mind that almost every time Republicans campaign on judges, they win (see 2002 and 2004). Never mind that, as long as the tone isn’t harsh, traditionalism attracts more voters than it repels. (See 2004, and see Bob McDonnell’s victory for governor in Virginia last year.)
And they act far too often as if certain constituencies, districts, or whole regions are out of electoral reach, or at least out of reach without violating core principles or otherwise pandering shamelessly to perceived local biases. (In truth, voters can smell a violation of principle, and a pander, from miles away, and usually punish the panderers accordingly.)
The list of “can’t be won” races that good candidates actually won is a long one. A Republican couldn’t win in black-supermajority New Orleans — until Joseph Cao did. A Republican couldn’t win a Senate seat in Massachusetts — until Scott Brown did. No conservative Republican could possibly win in Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Doug Walgren’s district in 1990 — until Rick Santorum did, despite being utterly ignored by the national Republican committees. Nor could Santorum, conservative as he was, possibly win statewide for the Senate in Pennsylvania — until he did in both 1994 and 2000. Marco Rubio can’t win in Florida over Charlie Crist. James Buckley couldn’t become a U.S. Senator from New York. Newt Gingrich was crazy in 1987, in the wake of Iran-Contra, to think Republicans could ever take a House majority. Nobody from a tiny-population state like Wyoming, or Hawaii, or Delaware, or Alaska, could win on a national ticket or even come close. And, lest we forget, there was no way on God’s green Earth that a conservative like Ronald Reagan could ever become president.
Moving away from political races: Israel couldn’t possibly survive as an independent state in 1948. The American budget couldn’t possibly be balanced without old ladies starving in the street. It was impossible to have low inflation and low unemployment at the same time. The Soviet Union could only be co-existed with, not transcended. (Its hockey team was invincible, too.) One missile could never knock another missile from the sky. Saddam Hussein could not be ousted without a loss of life that would make Vietnam pale in comparison. Sandra Day O’Connor could never be replaced by a male justice, especially not a proven judicial conservative. And, lest we forget, there was no way on God’s green Earth, as of last spring, that Obamacare could ever be stopped.
This whole conglomeration of stuff and nonsense came courtesy of a narrow, defeatist, timorous worldview that has always seen conservatism as a fading dream, no matter how many victories it achieves or how much good its policies create for this nation and its extraordinary people.
The worldview is badly misguided. The United States really is a center-right nation. The public really does prefer a less intrusive government to a nanny state. People really do care about freedom. Americans hate being told what to do. We are a people skeptical of centralized authority. We are a people of faith and family — and even most of those who aren’t “culturally conservative” still object when a government is not just neutral, but actively hostile, to the faith and families our friendly neighbors hold dear.
We like our elected officials to listen to us, thank you very much. We like them to admit and learn from their mistakes. We are not deeply ideological, so we are willing to try new directions — but only with care, and rarely too fast, and never when an untested change looks like it would be irreversible. And our default position is a “can do,” leave-us-alone, get-out-of-our-way spirit that is both conservative and classically liberal in the original meaning of that word.
The lesson from Scott Brown’s victory is the lesson of the Old College Try, and it is the lesson, for us modern political conservatives, from Ronald Reagan’s first Inaugural Address, which is impossible to quote too often:
“The crisis we are facing today…,” Reagan said, “does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God’s help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And, after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
American underdogs can win. Especially if they are cheerfully right of center and know that the right is, yes, right. Which, indeed, we are.