The GOP is full of lose right now. This is mostly unnecessary. It’s always worth taking stock after a defeat, but the 2012 defeat seems to have caused the party’s elites to consider jettisoning many of its core principles. The party’s official autopsy has managed to not only miss some important lessons of 2012, it is now exposing rifts within the party on some issues. This is not leadership, it’s foolishness.
Probably the most important lesson that the autopsy misses is the importance of quality candidates. A strong candidate can motivate base voters and win over voters in the middle, without abandoning principle. This has been the case at least since JFK and the dawn of the television age. In 1960, Nixon was easily more qualified, but JFK won people’s hearts and, thanks to that plus some chicanery in Chicago, won. Two more recent cases in point, from both parties: Barack Obama and Marco Rubio. Obama defeated a field of candidates in the 2008 Democrat primary, all of whom were more qualified than he was, and went on to win the presidency promising “hope and change.” What did that even mean? He didn’t say and the press didn’t ask, and a majority of voters didn’t care. It sounded good and he looked good saying it. Despite his lack of a record, Obama presented a sunny, youthful face and delivered eloquently written speeches with conviction. He didn’t write his own speeches and he didn’t mean probably 90% of what he said in them, but he was convincing when he said it.
Rubio overcame the GOP establishment, stuck to conservative principles, and won statewide in swing state Florida. He defeated the sitting governor, who at the time was Florida’s most popular politician in either party. Both Rubio and Obama won hearts on the way to winning minds, as Kennedy did before them, and Reagan in between. Carter won essentially the same way in 1976, promising to be an outsider who would rid Washington of the stink of corruption. Four years later he’d been revealed as incompetent, but it took sunny Ronald Reagan and his considerable communications skills to beat him. A less inspiring candidate always has a hard time unseating an incumbent. I’m not saying that records and ideas ultimately don’t matter. They do; they just can’t usually power a bad candidate to a win, and can’t often overcome a candidate who looks the part. I’m also not saying that I’m happy about any of this. It would be nice if qualifications and records mattered more than charisma, but mostly, they don’t. At least, not when the race is close.
Quality candidates tend to win; weak candidates tend to lose. That’s just the way it is.
What can the party do about this? Nothing that most activists would like, but on the other hand, jettisoning principle is a sure loser. Voters presented the choice between 90-proof politics and 10-proof aren’t likely to be inspired by the weaker choice. Lack of self-confidence doesn’t tend to produce fervent followers. Nobody will put their body on the line for a whiner who looks likely to betray them at the first sign of danger. To paraphrase John Kerry, how do you ask a man to be the last man to knock doors for a wimp?
The RNC’s autopsy ignores the value of strong candidates and, in signaling the possibility of abandoning principle, is making a major strategic error in not taking the reaction among its base into account. As I wrote yesterday, political activism is an optional pastime for most Americans. Most Americans are too sane to do politics for a living. People get into politics and organize with a party to support some policies and oppose others. What happens to a party’s activist base, though, when it signals abandonment of the policies that have brought its activists out? I’m not talking about occasional voters, but core supporters.
An activist friend of mine in Virginia explains it all very clearly in an email today.
I’m so disgusted with the R’s at this point, especially my governor, who has worked to pass the largest tax increase in VA history. What’s the point of wasting good shoe leather for these a**holes?
What’s the point, indeed?