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Thoughts on Conservatism at Restoration Weekend

2. We need a truce on divisive social issues.

Let us take opposition to gay marriage as the major example. Last week, gay marriage initiatives were passed in states in which they were defeated in previous years. The voters, not the courts, made their judgement known. While we must protect the rights of those who are fiercely opposed to it on religious or other grounds, and respect and seek to understand their opposition to the measure, we must accept the fact that to young people today, including young Republicans, the measure is seen as a civil rights issue whose time has come.

How do we answer the young Republican woman who, in the Wall Street Journal a week ago, wrote that most of her friends view the Republicans as “social bigots” and complained that “the right has done nothing to welcome young people.” Sarah Westwood argues that “Republicans don’t have a future unless they break up with the religious right and the gay-bashing, Bible-thumping fringe that gives the party such a bad rap with every young voter.” She may be too harsh, and does not appreciate the need to build coalitions of people with different views on the issues she raises. But at the very least, I think, Mitch Daniels is correct that we need a “truce” on emphasizing the social issues.

 3. Show in concrete detail how pro-growth and free market policies benefit all Americans, not just the wealthy few.

Mitt Romney’s 47% remark during his closed fundraiser, and his reiteration of it last week, shows that he was unable to grasp just how his depicting almost half the populace as takers who wanted handouts was extremely harmful. John Podhoretz writes:

He was displaying the same obtuseness about the wants and needs of ordinary people that did more to torpedo his campaign than any goodies Obama might have had to dole out.

Bobby Jindal, the brilliant and effective governor of Louisiana, raged against Romney in response. The former candidate was “absolutely wrong,” he said. Romney was “dividing the American voters.” Republicans, Jindal asserted, “need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American Dream.”

As the Republican nominee, it was Romney’s job to find a way to speak to some of those groups of voters and offer practical solutions to their difficulties that both resonated with them and sounded plausible to them.

Podhoretz is correct when he says that we need to do more than just advocate pro-business policies that do not resonate with those who actually are working very hard and are falling behind each day. Free market policies cannot just benefit risk-takers and entrepreneurs, “at the expense of everything else.” In Wisconsin, the same people who voted in Scott Walker despite a huge nationwide campaign to defeat him by the Left voted this time to put Republicans in local offices. Yet they elected Tammy Baldwin as senator and Barack Obama for president.

Romney may have won the white working-class vote, but many of that group stayed home this time (he got fewer votes than McCain did four years ago from this part of the population). Emphasizing the power of entrepreneurs, as one friend e-mailed me, “only sails past the working-class anxiety about fraying safety nets and lack of job security.” It is not enough to call for small government. We need to support government measures that are effective in meeting the demands of those who are worried about their future, and who have been obeying the rules of the game, raising their families, and working hard all of their lives.

Scott Walker was able to win his fight because he showed regular citizens of his state that his policies helped them and that public sector workers were a privileged group that was living off the largesse of the state and was way ahead of private sector workers -- including union members -- whose taxes were paying for their great advantages and perks. Clearly, these same voters were scared by Romney’s message, in a way they were not by the message of Scott Walker a year ago.

These same points were made at The Corner last week by Yuval Levin, who is one of the intellectual luminaries of the conservative movement, and from whom I always gain much knowledge. Levin writes:

The story of this election is not massive turnout of the Democratic base but exceptionally depressed turnout of a portion of the electorate that, when it votes, tends to vote Republican. Those were after all the two parts of President Obama’s cynical and substance-free campaign strategy: to work the most intensely committed and reliable parts of his base into a frenzy while persuading the least committed and reliable part of the Republican base (white working-class voters) that Mitt Romney didn’t deserve their support so they should just sit it out. Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the sophistication of the former effort—finding every last tiny niche in the patchwork of clamoring interest groups that makes up the Democratic coalition and telling it exactly what it wanted to hear. But the election returns suggest the latter effort—using any low and mendacious tactic required to tell working-class voters (especially white, Midwestern ones) that Mitt Romney was an evil and uncaring plutocrat—was by far the more successful and important. Those voters were not going to support Obama, but they could be kept away from Romney, and evidently they were.

He adds: “It would seem that the commonly voiced concerns that Romney would have trouble connecting with working-class voters and that the attacks on him as a vulture capitalist might work were basically right.”