How to fix the GOP

My colleague Michael Gerson and my former Commentary colleague Pete Wehner have written an insightful and timely piece explaining why the GOP is in trouble and what to do about it. The piece is deserving of a complete and thorough reading. I’ll summarize it briefly and add just a few thoughts.

Reince Priebus

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in January 2011 (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Michael and Pete cite the change in the electorate’s demographics and the end of the Cold War (“Nor has the decidedly mixed legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade worked to bolster the Republicans’ electoral advantage in the conduct of foreign policy; if anything, the opposite is the case.”) They also point to the quality of the GOP’s candidates and the “staleness” of its issues. They recommend five fixes:

First, and most important, is focusing on the economic concerns of working- and middle-class Americans, many of whom now regard the Republican Party as beholden to “millionaires and billionaires” and wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans. . . .

 

Second, a new Republican agenda requires the party to welcome rising immigrant groups. . . .

 

Third, Republicans need to express and demonstrate a commitment to the common good, a powerful and deeply conservative concept. There is an impression — exaggerated but not wholly without merit — that the GOP is hyper-individualistic. During the Republican convention, for example, we repeatedly heard about the virtues of individual liberty but almost nothing about the importance of community or social solidarity, and of the obligations and attachments we have to each other. . . .

 

Fourth, the GOP can engage vital social issues forthrightly but in a manner that is aspirational rather than alienating. . . .

Fifth, where appropriate, Republicans need to harness their policy views to the findings of science.

I entirely concur with these points and, although not as comprehensively as Michael and Pete, I have suggested a new focus for social conservatives on promoting marriage. Like them, I am impressed with the level of Republican talent, seen vividly this week in Sen. Marco Rubio’s State of the Union response and subsequent media appearances, and these pols’ ability to address the challenges the GOP faces. (“Their challenge is both to refine and relaunch the Republican message, to propose policies that symbolize values and cultural understanding, to reconnect with a middle America that looks different than it once did, and to confront old attitudes, not from time to time, but every day.”)

That leads me to the first of several additional thoughts on the topic: We should not underestimate the power of a political leader to reshape a party and alleviate much of what ails it. To paraphrase the Spanish Inquisition joke, no one expected a Ronald Reagan to come along to transform the GOP. In our presidential-centric politics, a winning presidential candidate wipes away a host of political sins and compensates for an array of political difficulties. That is not to say the candidate’s message or the spadework in policy development is unimportant, but personality and candidate quality (as the authors acknowledge) are extraordinarily important, more so that policy-centric conservatives would like to admit. Politics is the confluence of public policy and political theater; without exceptional political actors, the party will be a flop.

Second, tone and temperament get a bad name as superficial factors. In fact they are critical, especially given the current stereotype attached to the GOP (mean, angry, extremist). At the recent National Review Institute, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell made this point effectively. He asserted, “I’ve always subscribed to the basic premise that people have to like you before they’re going to listen to you. They have to know how much you care before they care how much you know.” He urged the audience to be “happy conservatives.” He summed up, “Our job, as conservatives, is to engage, empathize, and demonstrate why our principles will improve their individual lives, especially with new voters, young voters, minority voters, and casual voters.” This should be self-evident, but the necessity of stating it is a measure of the degree to which conservatives become obsessed with esoteric intra-movement fights and lose track of the real audience, the American people.

Third, conservatives would do well to reacquaint themselves with the requirements of a two-party system, divided government and constitutional checks and balances. I’ll credit Mr. Right Turn for observing, in a moment of exasperation: “Where did these people get the idea that politics was about getting everything you want?” Indeed. In a movement in which compromise, deal-making and half-measures are castigated, good governance and electoral success are sacrificed. It is one thing to state one’s goals and principles; it is quite another to oppose anything but ideological perfection. The most bone-chilling moments in the GOP 2012 presidential primary came in debates when all the contenders swore they’d never take a budget deal that offered $10 of spending cuts for every dollar of increased taxes.

And finally, candidates (as opposed to pundits or think-tankers) must stop obsessing about the mainstream media. Yes, they are biased and clueless about their own bias. Yes, they treat President Obama much more gently than they did President George W. Bush. Yes, they entirely failed to press the administration for answers on Benghazi. But mainstream media hostility is a given for conservative candidates. The good ones learn to deal with it and even thrive. (See Rubio’s brilliant self-deprecating humor about the water-sipping.) For candidates to whine and complain about it or, alternatively, to try to freeze out the media is asking for trouble. As I like to remind conservative groups, Ronald Reagan won the presidency twice with no talk radio, no Fox News, no blogs and no social media.

Michael and Pete’s piece, like Peter Berkowitz’s recent book which Right Turn discussed, is a useful contribution to the Republicans’ revival project. If other smart conservatives follow in generating thoughtful recommendations, and if candidates, activists and elected officials pay heed, the GOP will, to the dismay of the left, do just fine.

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