The smartest Republican post-mortems on the 2012 election recognize that the party’s problem isn’t messaging. It’s substance. Millions of Americans, including Latinos, young people, women and Asian Americans, don’t believe that the GOP has anything to offer to improve their lives. As Ramesh Ponnuru explained, “If Republicans found a way to apply conservative principles in ways that offered tangible benefits to most voters and then talked about this agenda in those terms, they would improve their standing among all of these groups while also increasing their appeal to white working-class voters.”
This doesn’t require Republicans to abandon their commitment to smaller government and traditional values, but it does require a difficult rethinking of what those commitments mean for public policy. Some conservatives are prepared to do that. Others, not so much.
Take, for instance, incoming Texas Senator Ted Cruz. In a speech last night, Cruz — often cited as a rising GOP star — told conservative activists that Mitt Romney lost the Latino vote, and the election, because of the “47 percent” tape. The implication is that Republicans would have won with a better message:
“The tone of immigration contributed, but I think far more important was ’47 percent,’” he answered.
“It wasn’t that comment — everyone if you put a camera in their face all day long will say something poorly. I think Mitt Romney is a good man, a man of character a man who ran hard, disciplined campaign. But Republicans nationally, the story they conveyed was that the 47 percent are stuck in a static world, ‘we don’t have to worry about you,’” Cruz continued. “Well that comment makes me sad. I cannot think of an idea more antithetical to the American principles of this country’s founding.”
Cruz’s alternative to the “47 percent” language is “opportunity conservatism.” But that is indistinguishable from current Republican policies — lower tax rates, fewer regulations, and more praise of businesspeople and entrepreneurs.
The simple fact is that the GOP’s messaging problem is an artifact of its substantive policy problem. The “opportunity” policies touted by Cruz don’t have anything to say about stagnant wages, the rising cost of health care, or mass unemployment. If anything, it’s a “clap harder” approach to public policy: If we say the same things, just louder, then eventually, voters will come to our side.
That this is a wrongheaded approach, however, does not mean that it won’t carry the day. As we’ve seen with negotiations over the fiscal cliff, Republicans are still committed to the agenda articulated by the Romney campaign, and will almost certainly continue to push for it throughout the next four years. Republicans may believe that the normal swings of American politics mean there’s a good chance that Republican will win the presidency in 2016. In which case, why make modifications?
If reform comes to the GOP, it will come with another presidential loss. It’s one thing to spend eight years out of office — that can be explained as just a swing in the pendulum. Twelve years out of power, however, is the kind of disaster that forces a party to undergo change.