Stuck in the Mud

By Frank Luntz
Sunday, February 25, 2007

"Don't be afraid to see what you see," Ronald Reagan once said.

Today, many of his disciples are choosing not to see the obvious. Republicans in Congress cannot regain their majority merely by relying on a coalition of traditional conservatives and evangelicals. They must reach out to what I call "the fed-ups" -- a large and growing constituency of independent voters who have held the balance of power in every election since 1992, and will hold it again in 2008.

It was only 14 years ago that nearly 20 million voters rejected both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in favor of H. Ross Perot, a little man with big ears and a big idea. Perot's principal claim on their allegiance in the presidential election of 1992 was his insistence that government should be competent, sensible and honest about its finances. His supporters were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore. Those voters -- 19 percent of the electorate -- demonstrated that there was a potent political movement of fed-up Americans.

Two years later, millions of Perot voters switched to the Republicans and helped them grab control of Congress. They stayed with the GOP for a decade because the party represented "good government." But red ink budgets, earmarked appropriations for bridges to nowhere, endless ethics scandals and a debacle of a war made them mad once again. In 2006 they deserted the GOP in droves and turned control of Congress back to the Democrats.

How incredible that the antidote to what ails the Republicans can be found in the words of a famous Democrat. In his tragic run for the presidency in 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy said, "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?' " The magnificent poetry of that challenge -- to do more and to do better -- is at the core of who we are as a society, what we want for America and for ourselves. Here is the reason why the Republican Party has faded from relevance in the past two years.

Despite its many problems, the United States remains a nation of dreamers. The American psyche is genetically wired to see possibilities. Faith in the future is in our DNA. It's why we historically vote for the more positive, hopeful, upbeat candidates.

Yet my recent public opinion research has recorded unprecedented anxiety about the country's direction. Just 34 percent of the voting public believe that the America of tomorrow will be better than the America of today, while 57 percent think it will be worse.

This explains why so many people have lost patience with the current U.S. leadership. It is no wonder that 52 percent of voters in my election night survey said they were "mad as hell" about politics and politicians. Can you blame them? It doesn't matter whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, the outlook is grim: a war with no end in sight, rising costs of health care, borders that are poorly patrolled, schools that are failing, manufacturing that is disappearing, and a culture that is coarsening.

Congressional Republicans didn't seem to notice in 2006, and certainly didn't seem to care. For the all-important swing voter in the center -- the current version of those 19-plus millionPerot voters -- Republicans came to represent the politics of hypocrisy and failure. They didn't have a message. They didn't have an agenda. They didn't have a purpose. And so on Election Day, these voters -- now about 16 percent of the electorate -- went elsewhere.

It is unfortunate that the Republican Party is currently dominated by hyperpartisan, gut-punching professional politicians and expert technicians whom I wouldn't want to face at the dark end of the electoral alley. They specialize in the flawless execution of "wedge" politics. That may have worked well in past elections, but no longer. The latest gimmick is "branding" -- a Madison Avenue technique -- to reverse the Republican slide. But political parties are not brands, slogans are not a replacement for ideas and you don't sell leaders the way you sell widgets.

Many rank-and-file Republicans agree. But the party apparatus still doesn't get it. Over the years, I have become unpopular with the GOP hierarchy by telling the apparatchiks what they needed to know, not what they wanted to hear. Nowadays my work is far from the day-to-day grind of political partisanship. But if I were still in the thick of it, my guidance would be just 20 words long: Be bold, return to basics, stop telling, start asking, focus on results, abolish "earmarks" and embrace a permanent balanced budget.

Shortly after the Republican landslide of 1994, Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa said: "I hope none of us lose the backbencher point of view. We should always look to make changes." Nussle was one of a cadre of passionate Republican reformers who railed against Democratic improprieties. (He gave up his House seat to run unsuccessfully for governor of Iowa last year.) The Republican Party still has its share of outsiders, crusaders, people unwilling to accept politics or governing-as-usual. I think of lawmakers such as Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who want to get back to balanced budgets, fiscal accountability and causes that appeal to centrist voters.

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