Another election, another set of mixed messages from the electorate at large. And another round of self-flagellation by the Conservative Commentariat coupled with ill-advised gloating from the Left.
Core message: No cause for alarm, but there’s clearly opportunity to ponder course corrections and work on infrastructure. We need to get past the “America’s a center-right Reaganesque country” wishful thinking and take seriously the challenges presented by contemporary progressive ideology. We also must heed John Paul II’s sage counsel at his own election: Be not afraid. For with John Boehner in the House, the relative risk of untrammeled liberalism remains low. We didn’t get the win we wanted, but we did get status quo.
The comments that follow are shaped, in large part, from reading the last few days’ commentary from sources as diverse as FireDogLake, NRO, RedState, Salon, Talking Points Memo and Weekly Standard. The two Jays — Cost and Nordlinger — and The Three Wise Elders of Moe Lane, Peggy Noonan and George Will have contributed disproportionately to the analysis that follows.
- Don’t blame Romney. Mitt Romney wasn’t a bad candidate. He ran a decent campaign. Some on the Right didn’t like him — such is an inevitability — but his campaign wasn’t a disaster. So don’t blame the Romney/Ryan ticket for losing. They ran a solid and honorable race. The GOP cannot move forward if scapegoating the nominee substitutes for genuine soul-searching.
- State-level organizations need fresh blood and a healthy dose of pragmatism. The GOP’s U.S. Senate holding in 2013 will consist of 45 seats. Conventional wisdom is that had Lugar not been successfully primaried by Mourdock, Indiana would have been a safe Republican seat. Had Akin not put his foot in his mouth, he probably would have easily trumped McCaskill. In 2010, the GOP put forth exceptionally weak candidates in Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and Christine O’Donnell. With better candidates, the GOP could easily have tied or even eked out a slender majority in the Senate by this point. The problem in these races isn’t the alleged “Establishment Republicans” intervening but rather of weak conveyors of candidates at the state level. For every satisfactory challenger to the status quo like Marco Rubio, you get the self-proclaimed witch that’s Christine O’Donnell. Worse, there’s every sign that that Tea Party has simply tried to insert itself into local politics at the precinct level, working their folks into the GOP’s base, so the GOP will continue to field subpar candidates as long as seasoned veterans and neophyte firebrands continue to battle in a way that leaves the Buckley Rule in tatters. State leadership really needs to recruit strong candidates and get them on a pathway to nomination victory early. Internecine warfare at the state level gives us a candidate-selection system that’s basically a giant Roulette wheel: You might get good, you might get bad, but no one knows until the primary’s over. (And like any game of Roulette, the House — the DNC — has an edge.)
- Nurture local volunteers. GOP efforts on election day, frankly, sucked — for the second presidential cycle in a row. The GOTV effort was dwarfed by the Obama campaign. This problem starts at the precinct and county levels. Too many Republicans prefer faux grassroots office over actually doing the hard work of building coalitions. When my own county GOP organization refuses to return phone calls and emails, and campaigns that do call (thank you, Pete Hoekstra) nevertheless don’t seem to align skills/experience with the nature of their requests, the question is: WTF? Maybe it’s a West Michigan thing, but it really seems like we have a substantial barrier at the grassroots level, with local GOP potentates acting complacent in their self-importance while the Dems run organizational circles around them. Case in point: My paperwork to be a precinct delegate this year “didn’t get filed” because I’m in the same precinct as the county chairman and he wanted to cast a ballot for his wife for some nominated office or something. But in our precinct, there was no effective GOP presence. No flyers, no door-to-door, no one to challenge Democrat yard signs in public easements. You’d think the precinct with the county chair could at least maintain a degree of visibility despite our overwhelming +D territory.
- The consultants deserve the boot. The scandal over Project ORCA and dumbfounded reaction of the RNC and the Romney campaign over actual voting results — when the Dems were basically dead-on accurate — suggests that the Republicans need to set aside the self-proclaimed smarter-than-thou campaign consultants and assemble leadership teams more nimble and less prone to score-settling. The performance of folks like Rick Beeson and Zach Moffatt this cycle, and Rick Davis and John Weaver for McCain, is beyond shameful. We don’t need consultants, we need candidates who know what it takes to win.
- The GOP needs better data scientists. I pity Neil Newhouse, the veteran GOP pollster; he seems like a sharp fellow but he hasn’t kept up with the times. Polling science isn’t what it used to be, and the GOP has clearly fallen far behind — they can’t even gauge the nature of the electorate, let alone its behavior. Mike Flynn argues that the institutional blindness of the Romney campaign came from its focus on metrics irrespective of the world behind those numbers. I find his point persuasive. Team Obama put its data scientists at the heart of the campaign and built everything else around them; Team Romney put the consultants at the heart and they cherry-picked the polls to meet their metrics and in so doing, lost sight of the real dynamic within the campaign.
- Conservatism needs to move beyond binary policy preferences. The very chaos of the Democratic coalition is, in a sense, also its biggest strength: You can deviate more from the party platform and still be a “good Democrat” to much greater degree than within the GOP. Nowhere is this trend more obvious than on gay marriage: The Dems favor it, by and large, but opposition isn’t a disqualifier (q.v., black preachers); on the GOP side, vocal opposition seems to be something of a litmus test, especially among the cultural conservatives. What galls about this is that “strengthening marriage” as a campaign slogan is exclusively about gay marriage — whereas in truth, the problems with marriage as a sociocultural institution run far deeper than that and are rooted in shifting norms among heterosexual youth such that gay marriage isn’t even a dot on the radar screen. Or take environmentalism: Many like to dismiss global warming as a “hoax” but why bother picking a fight about science when you could follow Roger Scruton’s brilliant advice about promoting conservation rooted in loving where you live? If the GOP adopted Scruton’s advice wholesale, we’d probably neutralize “environment” as a political issue within a fortnight. Policy positions should not be distilled into a false binary-choice slogan about about some isolated aspect of a larger and more complex issue.
- Think carefully about turnout in light of state and local ballot proposals. People who are less inclined to vote for individual politicians may nevertheless be induced to vote because of specific ballot initiatives and referenda. In Michigan, for example, we had six significant proposals that drew voters, and Grand Rapids — the state’s second-largest city — included a controversial marijuana-decriminalization proposal that ended up passing. Gay marriage won at the ballot in four states. Guess who showed up to vote? Republicans really need to get ahead of ballot initiatives.
- Articulate a coherent, positive message. It feels like the GOP is the party of “no” — no new ideas, no bold policy innovations, no willingness to work for the best interest of the common treasury. Conservatism in the Goldwater-Reagan era, bolstered by National Review and Firing Line, rose to the defense of a conservative movement that articulated bold visions and the polices to execute them: Defeat the Soviet Union, lower taxes from 70-percent highs, deregulate massive investments like telecoms and the airlines. Yay for us, we did it: The Soviet Union has been consigned to the ash heap of history, many industries have deregulated and tax rates are relatively low. So what’s next? No one knows. A vision that’s “smaller and smarter” doesn’t actually mean anything in the real world. A vision to defeat America’s enemies abroad in 2012 doesn’t mean staring down Brezhnev, it means fighting dozens of terrorist movements across the globe, but no one wants to do the work that such an effort would entail. Lowering taxes incessantly does have a minimal ceiling given that we can’t effect a zero-percent rate. So, what’s the vision? What’s the reason to vote for Republican’s that isn’t, fundamentally, a reaction against a progressive initiative? When will Republicans define their own platform instead of defining it against the opposition? The GOP can’t win when it’s presenting to the electorate nothing more than a referendum on progressivism without any real, substantive, positive alternative.
- Evacuate the bubble. Having despaired of the left-leaning influence of major cultural institutions like the mainstream media and Hollywood and the Ivory Tower, conservatives opted to erect something of an opposite number. Instead of moderating the left-wing pull of these institutions, we built our own in opposition. Thus, instead of pulling the major news networks and newspapers more toward the center, we relied on Fox News and The Washington Times and the WSJ editorial board to serve as balance. Instead of fighting for conservatism within the classroom, we built Ave Maria University and Liberty University. Instead of mainstreaming Republican sensibilities within Hollywood, we get 2016: Obama’s America. The inevitable outcome is that too many conservatives don’t need to fight for their beliefs anymore — they can just sit in the echo chamber. Of course, the rest of the country still gets left-leaning content, so we really haven’t solved the problem. I’d rather see MSNBC and Fox News both go away if it meant that the mainstream press operated from a more fundamentally balanced perspective.
- Stop giving shade to irrational policy preferences under the Tree of Conservatism. I’m still at a loss to understand why some particular policy preferences are considered conservative. It seems like certain groups — like evangelicals — have had their beliefs canonized, despite the very legitimate problems that these beliefs incur vis-a-vis pure conservative principles. For example, it’s more conservative to reform the institution of marriage (possibly, to include same-sex marriage) than to hold to a sectarian vision from the Eisenhower years that clearly doesn’t hold any longer. It’s more conservative to focus on fair-use conservation than to reject all environmental policy. It’s more conservative to tax at the “right” rates than to play a screwy game of tax tiers and sundry credits and deductions. It’s more conservative to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of immigration through smart regulation than to demonize “illegals” with a broad brush. It’s more conservative to bolster federalism and local control than to consent to the federalization of policies that some conservatives favor. The GOP, as the conservative party, must elevate conservative principles — but those principles shouldn’t be retrofitted to legitimize policy preferences that aren’t authentically conservative just because coalition members favor them for non-ideological reasons.
Ten theses. Ten ideas for course correction for the GOP and the conservative movement. I make no claim to being a Wise Guy who knows what’s best. I do pay attention to many different sources and see too much sophomoric reasoning substituting for informed policy-making and too much inside-the-bubble wishful thinking substitute for honest analysis.
I don’t think the GOP is in decline. I don’t think the Dems are on a long upswing. I think right now, the GOP has ample opportunity to fine-tune its operations and re-think some pernicious policy preferences that don’t really belong to conservatism.
More than anything, I think John Paul the Great was right: Be not afraid.