In the 2012 presidential election each side turned out its base. Mitt Romney won independents. It doesn’t take a math whiz to know that the Democrats have more people than Republicans. Until Republicans change that math, the particulars of the election (e.g., should Romney have responded to the air assault in swing states sooner and did the VP pick matter?) will be incidental.
A few thoughts are in order about the math. We do not know sitting in 2012 whether the math is Obama-specific or not. In the off-year election of 2010 the electorate was evenly divided between D’s and R’s . As hard as it is for conservatives to accept this, Obama is the left’s icon — the guy for whom they will turn out no matter what and for whom performance, record and policy are beside the point. In the post-Obama era, maybe that D+6 margin will shrink.
But it might well be that in 2012, at least for now, the country is culturally liberal, socially chaotic and economically more devoted to government than free market conservatives thought possible. In the short term, the country may indeed have shifted left. That does not, however, mean we are on the road to France. Unlike Europeans, Americans tend to be intensely practical, and if something better comes along in the post- Obama years, there’s every reason to think they’ll jump ship to another party.
How then do conservatives reverse the math (on the real chance that this is not a passing flirtation with Obama specifically)? There are, I would suggest, three essential tasks.
The first is to hold the Obama administration accountable for its actions. That means congressional oversight, principled journalism (which will have to come from conservative outlets since mainstream journalists have proved themselves entirely unwilling to practice it) and a some public education in cause-and-effect. If voters don’t like less than 2 percent growth and high unemployment, Republicans need to highlight the connection between those results and the policies we pursue. None of this entails an endless quests for scandal or obsessive attachment to personal attacks; there are plenty of real failures that will present themselves for scrutiny.
In that regard, Republicans must insist on transparency. The president should put his proposals on the table. Congress should respond in kind, publicly, so the public can assess the reasonableness and the ideas of each side. A close-door negotiation with a president who never put anything on paper was a mistake not to be repeated.
The second essential lesson is to convert more D’s to R’s. It’s that simple. Republicans have to go beyond the 2012 GOP ranks to win national elections. That, in large part, means getting more nonwhite voters. (A key stat in the election was the white vote that came in at only 72 percent of the electorate.) It means getting more urban voters, more singles, more women, more Hispanics, more Asians and more African Americans.
The party has to convert these voters, if you will, by explaining how the conservative message works for them. Republicans have done a bang-up job preaching to the converted who understand what “free markets” and “free market capitalism” are all about. Conservative intellectual arguments work with conservatives, but a more empathetic, emotional brand of politics that meets voters on their own terms is necessary to expand the Republican segment of the electorate.
And finally, to expand the pie of voters, Republicans must reach out to new Americans in a bold and meaningful way. Yes, secure the borders, but make legal immigration and student and work visas more widely available. Cultivate the allegiance of new Americans who are dogged pursuers of the American dream and believe in the land of opportunity. Don’t wait for the president to go first on immigration reform, but strike while the opportunity is there to demonstrate the party’s concern for those eager to make their way into this country and up the ladder.
Republicans don’t need a more conservative or a less conservative party. They need a bigger target audience. With relatable messengers and an inclusive message, the conservative movement can grow its forces. Otherwise it will lose, even with great debate performances, election after election.