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.
They understand that Republicans lost the majority because Americans wanted change. But they need to step up now, speak out and demand a public role in reforming the party and Washington in the same way that former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) demanded that well-meaning but failed Republican leaders step aside in 1994.
There are some hopeful signs.
Both the early front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 have appeal beyond the party's base of conservative supporters. Arizona Sen. John McCain tapped into the old Perot constituency in his bid for the nomination in 2000, and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is doing that now.
In Florida, a group of Republican legislators stepped back from partisan bickering to try something novel: They asked the people for ideas.
Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio challenged his colleagues to create an agenda for the future with "100 Innovative Ideas" from ordinary people around the state. Instead of fundraisers, they held "idea raisers." Republicans, Democrats and independents were all welcome -- any idea that advanced the principles of good government and political accountability was considered.
It wasn't a political ploy. They released their "100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future" after the election. And Republican legislators got back in touch with constituents.
But what did national Republicans do as the new Congress convened and Democrats began pushing through their "Six for '06" proposals in the first 100 hours? They called a news conference not to present counter-proposals to guide the minority over the next two years, but to complain that the Democrats were treating them unfairly. They objected that the committee process was being skirted and members were denied opportunities to offer amendments.
Were Republicans standing up for retirement security, control over health-care decisions or economic freedom? No. They were upset over who was or was not allowed to offer amendments on the floor. (Note to Republicans: Americans don't care.)
The path to a GOP majority must be paved with solutions to the real problems of real people. Republicans should talk about expanding health savings accounts and educating Americans about the benefits they offer. They should commit to sunsetting government programs every four years unless continuing them can be justified. They should pledge the investment necessary to develop renewable fuels and alternative energy. They should challenge Democrats to tackle the burgeoning tax code and fight for tax simplification on behalf of hardworking taxpayers.
Republicans need a spirited, intellectually based rebuttal to every piece of Democratic legislation and an alternative to every policy -- not a new parliamentary maneuver.
My polls show that Democrats now hold a perceived advantage with voters not just on reducing deficits and balancing the budget but on an issue long seen as a GOP strength: ending wasteful spending. That alone should jar Republicans into taking a fresh approach.
Step one should be the abolition of earmarks for hometown and home-state projects. Nothing will undermine the lobbyist culture more than a clear and definitive statement that there will never again be a highway project like the Alaskan "bridge to nowhere."
Step two is to once again stand for accountability, a principle abandoned in the last Congress. If Republicans are serious about demonstrating that they understand what America wants, they will support a balanced-budget amendment -- but with an important twist: The declining Social Security surplus couldn't be used as a numbers game to "reduce" shortfalls, and there would be a clause making it difficult to raise taxes.
Republicans lost their congressional majority because they lost touch with what Americans really want. As a pollster, I rarely hear voters call for smaller government. They tell me that they want more efficient and more effective government. (Note to Republicans: There is no starker symbol of Washington's inefficiency and ineffectiveness than the federal government's inability to control our borders and prevent illegal immigration.) Last year, Republicans campaigned locally and lost nationally. Relying on local issues to define elections at a time when national matters dominate public concerns is a losing strategy. With 20 months until the next election, Republicans have a responsibility as the minority party, as the opposition party, to prove themselves as once again worthy of public trust. They must adopt a bold agenda to mirror the public's desire for bold change. Anything less and they will fail not only themselves but also the country.
Frank Luntz, a corporate communications adviser, was pollster for the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America" and advised House and Senate Republicans from 1994 through 1999. He is the author of the new book "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear" (Hyperion).