The political fortunes of the Republican Party give every appearance of rising from the ashes, like the mythological phoenix of old. Aided by the unpopularity of the radical Democratic agenda and the nakedly overbearing efforts by that party to ram this agenda down the nation’s collective throats, the Republicans are poised to roar back onto the national political scene in November in a way reminiscent of 1994.
Indeed, the talk is generally not about whether the GOP will take back the House, but by how many seats. Regaining control of the Senate, similarly, is viewed by many as an attainable goal for the Republicans. This sort of talk is aided by favorable polling, not the least of which being Rasmussen’s gold standard tracking polls, which have consistently shown that the GOP holds a decent lead in generic preference on congressional ballots — something that bodes quite well for Republican fortunes this fall. Following on spectacular victories in 2009 in which they took back the governor’s mansions in New Jersey and Virginia, there seems to be good reason for this optimism.
However, we should never underestimate the power of the Republican Party leadership to ruin a good thing.
The Republican Party can certainly still blow it and lose in November. Indeed, there are a number of disconcerting trends that potentially point in that direction, and these trends help to reinforce the gut feeling I am getting that the GOP is losing the momentum that it had coming into this spring.
First, there is the squishiness that seems to be nothing short of genetic in the present GOP “leadership.” This ruling caste never seems to miss the opportunity to apologize for a principled stand taken by a truly conservative elected official, to bemoan the resurgence of conservative activism in and around the party, or to condemn some element of their own party in Democrat-like terms. How else can we explain National Republican Senatorial Committee chair John Cornyn’s statements to the press announcing that the GOP might not try to repeal that there health care takeover after all, if they retake the Congress? Remember the health care takeover? The one that a majority of Americans hated? I can’t imagine that this won the GOP any points with either their own base or with crucial independent voters who despised this legislation to almost the same degree that conservative Republicans did.
But that’s not all. Michael Steele, apparently stealing a few cards from the Democrats’ deck, planted himself in front of a camera every few weeks and complained that a black man just can’t make it in the GOP. Thanks for turning those millions of dollars spent in minority outreach into so many wasted greenbacks, Mike. Or how about the recent decision to reject Phoenix, Arizona, as the 2012 Republican convention site, yielding to pressure from self-appointed spokesmen for the Latino community, in opposition to that state’s wildly popular new enforcement law? What of that band of Republican elected officials — such as Lindsey Graham and John McCain — who always seem to be looking for ways to part with and condemn their own party, and who always seem to provide convenient sound bites to the media?
The problem here is a lack of leadership, from the top all the way down. The Republicans seem to have little to no concept of organizational discipline. Can anyone remember the last time a sitting Democratic official — elected or apparatchik, regardless of ideology — openly criticized and opposed their own party the way so many liberal Republicans do? Even when a Democrat votes against his party’s line, do we ever see them running to the Sunday talk shows, eager to explain why they “had” to vote the way they did, as a protest against the ignorance and stupidity of their fellow Democrats? No, of course we don’t, because they don’t do it.
Republican “leaders” seem unable to establish true cohesion among elected Republicans, except in opposition to the most extreme of Democratic proposals. It’s to the point now where most of the major Republicans who are vocal about standing up for conservative principles and opposing the Democratic agenda are those who do not actually occupy leadership positions within the party apparatus itself. Think Jim DeMint. Think Sarah Palin. Think Michele Bachmann, Jan Brewer, and Paul Ryan.
This lack of leadership is what will kill the GOP with moderate and independent voters. Let’s face it — your typical “moderate” voter is not such because he or she is some sort of hyper-rational exemplar of reason and even-handedness. Instead, the majority of these types of voters are what they are because they don’t know much about politics, they don’t take the time to educate themselves about the issues, and they are more driven by emotion and perception than they are by ideology.
As such, the seemingly constant effort by the official GOP leadership to drive the party toward the center doesn’t really work to bring these voters on board. This is due to the simple fact that this supposed centrism isn’t usually going to be a shared framework of understanding. I firmly believe that what “moderates” respond to more than anything else is competency and leadership. If you display these traits, they will vote for you. If you are wishy-washy, won’t take a stand for anything, and give the appearance of weakness, they will abandon you.
This is why the GOP has done so poorly in recent years, despite the efforts to move toward the center and to be “conciliatory” and “bipartisan.” Conversely, Ronald Reagan won the middle in 1980 and 1984, and the Gingrich-led GOP won it in 1994 (as evidenced by their lopsided victories), by demonstrating forthrightness and leadership while remaining quite conservative. You knew where they stood, and you knew what they stood for. They weren’t leading a divided party with seemingly more mavericks and loose cannons than people who were on task.
Speaking of a lack of coherency, this leads me to my second point, which is that the GOP is entering into this campaign season with little to nothing in the way of a consistent, articulate set of beliefs and plans. The base of the party and its conservative elected officials want the GOP to present a strong, internally consistent message of smaller government, greater liberty, and support for traditional values. The RINOs who infest too many positions of influence in the party are dead set on confusing and stifling that message.
Combined with this is the fact that too many Republicans have adopted the “tea party” approach to electoral politics. The tea parties are great, and I firmly believe that the conservative silent majority within the GOP needs to work with the tea partiers toward the common goal of conservative victory. However, the tea parties are limited in the scope of their message by the fact that they are, first and foremost, reactive in nature. They exist because people are angry about what has already been done. The tea parties can easily tell us what they are against, but when it comes to telling us what they are for, they are hard-pressed to move beyond bland generalities. Because they are not a political party and are not running candidates for office, they can get away with this. The Republican Party, however, cannot.
The GOP needs to do more than merely oppose Obama, Pelosi, and Reid. The other day, Obama criticized Republicans for being the “just-say-no crowd.” While his reasoning and purpose for doing so were ignorant, his simple statement, in and of itself, was not so far off the beam. In 1994, Republican candidates for office were largely united around the conservative manifesto and platform represented in the Contract for America. That contract clearly articulated what they, and the party they represented, stood for. It was a positive statement outlining what Republicans believed in and what they were planning on doing once they got into office. The voters liked it and voted for those who supported it.
This time around, we have nothing like that to provide either political or ideological unity. Indeed, aside from grousing about Democratic policies that are already in the works, the party seems incapable of telling voters clearly and boldly what it stands for. Conservative Republicans need to get together; unite around a common program of positive steps that they would take to reform, shrink, and tame our government; and present this message to the voters in an unambiguous and forthright way.
This brings me to my third and final point: The Republicans are doing an absolutely horrible job of getting their message out and counteracting the continuous propaganda against them that is put out by the mainstream media. This is an artifact of the squish instinct discussed above. Unlike the estimable governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, most Republicans, even conservative ones, are loathe to be painted by the MSM as “confrontational.” They don’t want to be cast as “mean-spirited.” But despite their best efforts at keeping themselves from being depicted this way, they still end up being defined by the media, because the media’s voices are the only ones that are heard.
Look at it this way: These guys are politicians. Politicians normally love television cameras. So why aren’t they tripping over themselves to get in front of a few and tell the American people what they really stand for, instead of allowing the caricature to continue?
The problem with conservatives shying away from the cameras is two-fold. Not only do they not get their message out, but the RINOs end up being the “voice of the Republican Party.” When people see a Republican on television, that politician is quite often criticizing his or her own party, apologizing for the racism and ignorance of the party, or promising to reach across the aisle to help the Democrats with the next piece of liberty-stealing legislation.
When that goes on long enough, people start to get the idea that the Republicans are just about like the Democrats and not a worthwhile alternative to the current crew controlling Washington. This dispirits the conservative base. It drives off independents who are looking for real change and the restoration of responsible, limited government. It makes all Republicans appear to be compromisers who support big government. It allows the media to paint the few vocal conservatives as extremists and wackos who are out of the mainstream even within their own party.
So what can be done about these problems with the Republican Party? The effort to take the party back for the conservative grassroots currently underway is a good start. Replacing the current crop of insiders and hacks with a leadership cadre who is on the same page as the conservative base is a must. But again, it takes more than just seizing back the reins of power. Conservatives need to communicate our values and policies to a generation who has forgotten Reagan and the Contract for America. We need to recruit candidates who will stand firmly for our conservative values. Conservative Republican candidates for office need to be on the same page and know that they have the support of a dedicated, conservative grassroots and party apparatus behind them.
Further, conservative elected officials need to be willing to get confrontational, to turn leading questions back onto the media shills who ask them, and to challenge the prevailing assumptions on camera every opportunity they can get. Rather than shying away from controversy, conservatives need to court it. We need to force the American people to start thinking about the issues, by forcing the news media to report on them.
This is an outline of what needs to be done, but it will only get done when we conservatives get serious about making it happen. As long as we refuse to hold the present Republican “leadership” accountable, it will continue with business as usual. If conservatives continue to sink into apathy and despair, not being involved in the political process at all, or splintering ourselves into a plethora of third parties because of our emotional reaction to the Republican Party’s unworthiness, then we will continue to see the GOP drift, and the Democrats will continue to win and continue to foist their agenda onto us. We will win if we get active, connect with our candidates, and take back our party. It’s not too late for this to happen in 2010, but if we dilly-dally, it soon will be.