Give Senator Ted Cruz of Texas credit for making an argument in today’s Washington Post about the direction the Republican Party should take to strengthen its appeal in national elections. The Republican Party, in the wake of November’s losses, is going through the same navel-gazing that has occupied Democrats in the wake of their previous defeats. These turns inward usually focus on weighing the relative responsibility of the messenger versus the message, and often result in little more than a few op-eds and speeches.
But, on at least two occasions in recent political history, this soul-searching has led the parties out of the wilderness and eventually to the promised land. In the wake of the Republican landslides of 1980 and 1984, a group of Democrats, led by Al From, formed the Democratic Leadership Council, which supplied much of the thought leadership that influenced Bill Clinton and others to run successfully as a new breed of Democrat, focused on responsibilities as much as rights, on opportunity as much as entitlement. Suddenly, it was cool for a Democrat to speak of tax cuts for the middle class, welfare reform, crime reduction and the cultural harms of the entertainment industry.
In the late ’90s, Republicans seemed to have blown their political power consolidated in the realignment election of ’94 when Newt Gingrich’s revolution reached its apogee. By 1998, the party was in retreat, and in early 1999, Gingrich resigned his speakership when he had lost the support of his caucus.
On the heels, of this defeat, George W. Bush was elected a year later. Karl Rove brilliantly steered George W.’s electoral ship between the shoals of his father, viewed as a conservative sell-out, and the debris of Newt Gingrich’s mean-spirited approach to issues. Rove presented the junior Bush as a “compassionate conservative,” which was the perfect solution to the Republicans’ dilemma. Suddenly, it was cool for a Republican to be for immigration reform, for improving education and supporting a prescription drug benefit.
A read of Sen. Cruz’s op-ed doesn’t reveal a compelling redefinition of the Republican message just yet. The senator offers a frame — opportunity — that isn’t bad, but no better than one George W. tried out and them discarded: “the ownership society.” The problem is that the senator doesn’t put anything inside the frame. Clinton and Bush were successful not only because they put forward a new and counter-intuitive message, but also because they populated it with ideas and proposals. There is time for that, of course. It will be interesting to watch.