If you have about 30 minutes (the cumulattive time it will take to listen to three YouTube segments), it is well worth your time to listen to American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks. He, in filling in on the radio for Hugh Hewitt, delivers a thought-provoking and fact-based argument for why conservatives must talk about the poor and fairness, which runs counter to the instincts of many on the right.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (Marlon Correa/Washington Post)

I’ve written about Brooks’s view, namely that to win the public debate conservatives need to hook into the values of compassion and fairness shared by nearly a hundred percent of the electorate. This doesn’t mean changing conservative views; it means explaining why conservatives’ views are more compassionate and fairer than the liberal welfare state.

The implications of Brooks’s argument (essentially, tell voters that you are for them, not the things that you are against) are both philosophical and pragmatic. As for the latter, it’s no secret that Mitt Romney lost the “cares about people like me” question in the 2012 campaign by a 20 to 80 margin, or that his 47 percent remark conveyed that he didn’t care about nearly half the public. You can’t win hotly contested elections with that mindset.

But the more important aspect of Brooks’s argument is philosophical. What should conservatism be about? What should be conservatives’ priorities? If you say “small government” or “free markets” you’ve made the mistake of confusing means and ends. Conservative believe in small (or smaller) government and free markets because … they lead to results for people that are fairer and more compassionate. (Listen to Brooks’s explanation as to how entrepreneurship has reduced world-wide poverty by 80 percent.) In its simplest form, conservatism is better for people than the alternative.

This is so elementary you wonder why so many conservatives don’t get it. They either talk to regular voters like it’s an Edmund Burke lecture series or don’t explain themselves (“free market capitalism” is not intuitively understood by a lot of voters) or cede too much ground to liberals (“the Hispanic vote is lost,” “poverty is a liberal issue,” etc.)

One reason the right is making considerable headway on health care is that it explains Obamacare’s problems in terms of fairness and compassion. It isn’t fair to make people buy insurance they don’t want. It’s not fair to exempt employers from the mandate, but stick individuals with it. It hurts people when insurance premium costs go through the roof. It hurts the poor to be relegated to Medicaid where insufficient provider rates keep the best doctors from treating them.

This is why, I suspect, GOP governors do better with voters outside their base than do most national Republicans. The governors talk about how voters’ lives will be improved, not about abstractions. They’ll get booted from office unless they improve things (e.g. schools, health care, business climate) which often entails doing things for those with modest incomes (the rich can live in good school districts or go to private schools; the rich have good insurance). Two examples will suffice.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made his case to state voters that it wasn’t fair that union workers received so much more than the taxpayers who supported them and it wasn’t fair that teachers’ were in the way of kids’ getting the best education they could. No wonder he won election and survived a recall. You want to be against taxpayers and children?

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in a speech at Harvard on educational choice made the case that it improved test results and that “choice in education is also an issue of social justice.” In his view, wealthy families should not have more options for their children to attend school than poorer families. Inadequate education is blighting the lives of many children in the United States, he said, and people may have become desensitized. Bingo. Fairness. Compassion for the poor.

Unless and until Republicans can formulate arguments that convince voters they are looking out for “people like them” and practicing both fairness and compassion, whole sections of the electorate will continue to reject them out of hand. In evaluating candidates and their potential for success, GOP voters would be wise to assess who non-die-hard Republican agree cares about them. Which candidate can best explain why their ideas are more compassionate and fairer than what Democrats offer? That’s really the best indicator of political success on a national level. Ronald Reagan knew it. George W. Bush knew it. Current Republicans? Not so much.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.