The mainstream media has pronounced last rites on the Republican Party.
The Republicans have no ideas. (All the stimulus plan suggestions and alternate health care plans don’t count.)
They lack viable leaders. (None of the governors qualify.)
They should really just pack it in, we are told.
Well it’s only six months into the Obama presidency, his poll numbers have dropped sharply, the public doesn’t like his big spending ways, the unemployment numbers are skyrocketing, and the congressional generic poll shows Republicans neck-and-neck. So it may be premature to declare the GOP obsolete already.
But we have learned something in the last six months from watching the president and his Republican critics. Based on what we have seen we would suggest that those seeking to lead the party back from the wilderness should abide by seven rules. Those who follow them are not guaranteed to grab the 2012 nomination, but if a contender can’t even manage these simple guidelines, he or she really needs to get off the stage.
1. No drama. We don’t care if the drama is self-inflicted (Mark Sanford) or follows the contender like a magnetic rain cloud (Sarah Palin). If you can’t control yourself, your family, your finances, and your own life, people won’t trust you with the party or the country. Maybe it isn’t fair to penalize those who are victims of a hostile media storm, but if between now and 2012 People magazine has more material on the candidate than the Economist, it really is time to exit.
2. The “Look Ma, No Experience!” fad may have passed with the election of Barack Obama. The race in 2012 will be a referendum on Obama. The argument from the GOP will be that he has bollixed up the country worse than George W. Bush. If that’s the theme, then it may be time to elect someone who knows something about something. He or she need not know everything, or have expertise in every conceivable area of public policy. But having demonstrated competence on some topic could well come in handy. A general, a governor, a business person, or a foreign policy guru will at least have some standing to say, “Obama got X wrong. I saw X coming a mile away and know how to fix it.”
3. Think about the debates. Eventually the GOP nominee will need to get on the stage opposite the incumbent president. He or she will need to be more presidential and more credible than the fellow the moderator refers to as “Mr. President.” That is no easy task. It helps to be not old, not a grouch, and not imprisoned by policy minutiae to the exclusion of broader themes and an aura of gravitas. That’s what Ronald Reagan had to do in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 — convince the public to like them and to trust them to fix what ailed the country.
4. Be able to run a full-throated attack on Obama and the Congress. If the task will be to throw the bums out, then a successful GOP leader is going to have to combine core conservative ideas with a healthy serving of populism and unbridled opposition to liberal-dominated government. What did the candidate do to fight Obama-ism? Was he part of the spending pork-a-thon? In short, the candidate is going to need to both distance himself from Washington and show some political bona fides in having battled the very policies he is now running against.
5. A little boring is okay. If we are facing stagflation or multiple international crises we don’t need a stand-up comedian or a pop culture icon in the Oval Office. Former Vice President Dick Cheney showed us that you need not be more charismatic or “cooler” than Obama to win a policy debate, just better informed and more focused on a clear, fact-based message. Yes, we don’t want to run afoul of Rule #3, but there is something to be said for running a stunt-free campaign.
6. Figure out the demography. The old, white, southern men don’t vote in great enough numbers to elect the next president. Take a credible position on immigration and stress the benefits of assimilation as the key to the American success story. Explain why conservative ideas benefit the poor and newcomers to America. Make the argument for the American dream. And if the party’s tone on immigration has been off-putting, change the tone and lead by example.
7. Don’t banish a single person from the party. Rush Limbaugh, Colin Powell, David Frum, and all the silly conservatives who backed Obama should be part of the campaign and part of the candidate’s outreach. Even, you know, Democrats are welcome. Never should the words “not a real Republican” pass from the candidate’s lips, as tempting as it may be. Only fools think a minority party losing market share needs to thin the herd.
Now how hard could that be? Harder than you think. There may be only a handful of Republicans in the entire country who could get all seven right. But that is fine — we only need one and we only need him or her by 2012.