If we want to fix what ails the Republican Party, it’s worth taking a few moments to diagnose what went wrong, while acknowledging what the Democrats did right. Once we’ve diagnosed the disease and figured out how another patient overcame similar problems, we can start to get the GOP’s health back on track.
First off, the Republican Party succeeded from 2000-2004, not — as some people think — because they softened their ideological edges, but because the GOP had an edge over the Democrats on foreign policy issues, which were the dominant issues of those election cycles. However, by the 2006 election, the war in Iraq had turned into a net negative for the GOP and domestic issues — where the party’s agenda has become stale and out of step with the base — had become much more important. Moreover, George W. Bush, who had been very popular from 2000-2004, saw his popularity plunge in his second term. With the figurehead for the Republican Party a wildly unpopular man with terrible political instincts, an unpopular domestic agenda, and no communication skills, it was a recipe for disaster and the party didn’t help matters by methodically steering right into every political trap.
Additionally, Bush and his Republican allies in Congress systematically alienated their conservative supporters by almost totally ignoring their concerns on issues like spending and immigration, even to the point of gratuitously insulting conservatives who disagreed with them. The Party then topped this all off by choosing the single least popular man in the entire Republican Party with conservative activists, John McCain, as the party’s presidential nominee. This resulted in the GOP’s base becoming incredibly dispirited, which deprived the party of money, volunteers, and much needed defenders — particularly in 2008, a year when the mainstream media went ga-ga for Obama.
Meanwhile, the Democrats did an outstanding job of taking advantage of the GOP’s woes. From 2004-2008, they eschewed bi-partisanship and the center, relentlessly pandered to their base, and ferociously attacked Bush and the GOP at every opportunity. Over time, the Democratic base and infrastructure, which benefited tremendously from the financial help it had received from rich Democratic donors, became maniacally energized and channeled truly gargantuan amounts of money, volunteers, and raw enthusiasm to the Democratic cause.
Now, Obama is the president. Meanwhile, the GOP doesn’t have the capability to block anything in the House, and it barely has the capability to muster a filibuster in the Senate. So how does the GOP turn this situation around?
1) The job of the loyal opposition is to oppose: The key to firing up the base, drawing the clear distinction with the Democrats, and for that matter, good governance, is loudly opposing bad bills at every opportunity. The GOP should never support bad legislation merely so it can claim to be “bi-partisan” or so it can say it “did something” at election time.
2) Stop conceding so many groups of voters: The GOP needs to do a better job of reaching out to Hispanics, blacks, Jews, Muslims, women, and young voters. That doesn’t mean we need to compromise our principles, but it does mean that we do need to stop writing off these groups and giving up before we get started. The truth is that the Republican Party is a better fit for every one of those groups than the Democrats, and we can make that case. But to do that, we need to tailor our message to each group and make a real, consistent, long-term effort to bring more people from these groups into the fold instead of making a halfhearted effort, saying “they’ll never vote for us anyway,” and giving up.
3) Rebuild the party brand: What the last four years have proven conclusively is that there is no future for a “Democrat-light” party in this country that talks about small government, keeping spending under control, cleaning up corruption in Washington, and law and order while delivering none of those things. Yes, we do need to continue to be a socially conservative party and we do need to continue to stand for a strong American foreign policy. However, those two issues alone will not carry us back to the promised land. We also need to “walk the walk” on the other parts of our agenda that were all too often ignored during the Bush years.
4) Expanding our domestic agenda: The GOP has become almost entirely reliant on tax cuts and social issues on the domestic side. While those are still strong issues, we also need to expand our appeal by talking about a wider array of policies that can appeal to the American people. For example, we should get behind true energy independence through nuclear power and shale oil. We should develop a real security-first policy on illegal immigration. We should focus environmental efforts on clear water, clear air, and a non-polluted environment. Finally, we should strive to reduce health care costs by giving health care tax breaks to individuals not companies and allowing people to buy insurance from any state.
5) Support the home team: Better support for exceptional conservative talent, right-of-center grassroots organizations, and online machinery is a necessity. In other words, we need our own George Soros to fund conservative organizations, our own Media Matters to give more conservatives the ability to blog full-time, and our own ACORN to register conservative voters.
6) Stop thinking that the rules of politics don’t apply to Republicans: The very first rule of politics is to secure your base. That means, priority number one for the Republican Party needs to be convincing conservative radio hosts, bloggers, and activists that they’re part of the solution, not part of the problem. Once that’s done, then the party can feel free to reach out to the middle in ways that don’t alienate the base.
If we go into 2010 with a fired-up conservative base, a strengthened grassroots, a refurbished party brand, more appeal to a wider slice of the American public, and a consistent record of opposing the destructive far-left wing policies of Barack Obama, the GOP can quickly turn around the Republican Party’s fortunes.