Margaret Hoover, a great-granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover, is a regular figure on cable news and a veteran of the George W. Bush campaign. Her new book, American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party, hits the bookshelves on Tuesday. It’s likely to make some waves.
Far from being a defender of the status quo, she’s sending up a warning to the GOP. In a far-ranging interview she told me, “I wrote the book because I care about the state of the party.” That might seem odd, given the Republicans’ recent success in 2010, but she has her eye on the horizon or, more precisely, on the generation of Americans born between 1980 and 1990 (the “millennials”). If you vote for the same party in three successive presidential elections, she says, your political loyalties are pretty much set for life. The GOP lost the youth vote in 2004 and 2008, and may do so again in 2012 if it doesn’t break through with these voters.
At first blush she sounds like one of the batch of pundits (most exemplified by David Frum) who’d like the GOP to dump social conservatives, adopt new socially liberal views and trade a loyal, influential segment of the party for newer, hipper and less reliable voters. But her book is more nuanced and positive than that.
Her message is simple and not unlike that of the Tea Party movement, for which she has effusive praise. (“Personally I think it’s an incredible contribution to the Republican Party.”) To capture the most racially diverse, politically independent generation we have ever seen, Hoover says,”We need to shift the focus to fiscal issues.We have to talk specifically about their future.” Republicans have a convincing case to make against President Obama, she argues. “He’s taken a pass on their issues.”
She says the most effective message to these voters is one of “generational theft.” She gives me the pitch she thinks most effective with young voters: “ Your parents are dining out on things you won’t have in the future.” As Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) (whom she dubs her ”dream candidate” for 2012) has done, she thinks the party needs to present a clear, nonpartisan message that explains that the “opportunity society with a safety net won’t be there” unless we get our fiscal house in order.
She points to the campaigns of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell as “exactly right” for the millennial generation. They focused on bread-and-butter issues and avoided hyperpartisanship. (Daniels likes to say that when talking to voters he never uses “Republican” or “Democrat” but talks about good ideas.) Both of these candidates (and Paul Ryan as well) are social conservatives, but their message and the tone of their delivery, Hoover argues, will not turn off young voters.
Still, there is a conflict with social conservatives inherent in her book. She says plainly, “We need to drop the litmus test on social issues.” In particular, she contends that support for gay rights (like racial and gender equality) has become such a given among young voters that the Republican Party emphasis on “traditional values” risks turning off a generation. (She is on the board of GOProud, a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-free market, conservative, grass-roots organization.) That message won’t sit well with social conservatives and risks igniting the intraparty fights that have largely been put aside with the rise of the Tea Party and the unified opposition to Obama’s domestic agenda.
However, Hoover is on firmer ground when she explains how core Republican messages can be couched in terms that millennials understand and appreciate. Youth employment is 37 percent, so a message on jobs would be easy to formulate. On immigration, Hoover cautions that this is the most racially diverse generation in our history but Republican politicians such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez have figured out the right approach. “We learned our lesson,” she acknowledges when talking about attempts at immigration reform championed by President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “You have to secure the borders first. And that isn’t rocket science.” She says millennials, like most Americans, “are not saying, ‘Open up the borders.’ ” But tone, rhetoric and a positive message make all the difference, she argues.
She likewise thinks that the party now has a positive story to tell about its own diversity. With a new crop of leaders in Congress and on the state level, she says, Republicans need to go after the myth that it “is the party of old, white men.”
Her main and most valuable point is that the hyperpartisan, anti-Obama rhetoric that gets the juices flowing in Tea Party gatherings and primary races is not the way to capture younger, less ideological voters. She says that when it comes to Obama, millennials “like him personally.” What they are looking for is a positive alternative. (This point was echoed in the recent Resurgent Republic’s focus groups of independent voters.) It doesn’t matter the age of the candidate. (“Ronald Reagan won voters under 30 by 20 points.”) But a message that indicts the Obama economy, not Obama, and which lays out the economic message of opportunity and limited government will sell with these voters, she argues.
Finally, she cautions that the Democrats’ dependence on Big Labor provides an opening for the GOP with millennials, especially with regard to education. “They get that unions are a problem. This is a huge opportunity to exploit,” she observes. Education ranks very high on the list of issues for these voters and a reform agenda based on school choice is a winner with young voters.
Hoover is an engaging personality with timely advice for Republicans. Her book and her message, if seen as a way to expand rather than divide the party, are helpful guides to candidates and political operatives. And frankly, the Republican Party of New York, among the most incompetent and unproductive of the GOP’s state parties, might do well to get her on the ballot somewhere in 2012.