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?

Reince Priebus, Bob McDonnell, he’s talking about you. This is someone who has spent hundreds of hours of personal activism and undoubtedly thousands of dollars of personal money to support and elect Republicans just in the past few years, in a critical swing state. This person’s activism was close to full time for more than a year, while also holding down an actual full-time job. This person is a genuine leader in the party and spent considerable time and treasure supporting Bob McDonnell. McDonnell ran and won by being solid on socially conservative issues and as a real fiscal conservative. The tax increase he’s contemplating is reading as an abandonment of the latter. McDonnell is repaying this person’s efforts by doing the opposite of what he promised. “A**hole” may be too mild a response, frankly.

Write this reaction across the entire party. Betray your base, and you run the risk of turning them off. They won’t go over to the Democrats. They just won’t turn up for local meetings to organize the party and promote it, they won’t give to candidates, they won’t give a damn.

This is how you grow a party? The RNC is going to replace people like this…how? With voters who only tune into elections at the last minute and make their decisions based on heart and gut?

The Republican Path to Success now looks like this:

  1. Annoy your base by agreeing to do what the Democrats want.
  2. ????
  3. Win, baby!

The Democrats have figured things out. They’re running a full-time campaign outside the DNC to keep the party’s activist base engaged and motivated. They’re still getting emails signed by Obama himself. There are risks involved with this, mostly in the possibility of burning activists out, but the upsides so far outweigh the downsides. Its base is happy, mostly, and the conflicts within are easier to paper over when they all feel like they’re still on the team and they’re keeping the other team on the defensive. In politics, offense tends to be a strong defense.

The Republicans barely engaged their base during the election, and have done nothing to counter OFA afterward. The autopsy tells many in the base that the party really doesn’t care what they want and will take their activism, their money, and their votes for granted. This is not a recipe for success.

Oh, look — Republicans didn’t cave on a core issue, and they won despite not even having the majority in the Senate! Will they learn anything from this?