Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, spoke at the CPAC confab last week and gave some cheerful but tough words (beginning at the 16:00 mark) for conservatives struggling with their election losses and trying to reconcile their conservatism with a string of presidential election losses. He explained that Republicans lost big in November, 2012, on the issues of whether they “care about people like me” or “care about the poor.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press) House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

This, he argues, is the root of the right’s problem. Conservatives, he said, have handed the fairness and the concern for the poor issues to the other side, despite faith that their own conservative ideas work better than liberal ideas. This is especially troublesome because these concerns are nearly universal values for Americans. “We are fighting against things, they are fighting for people.”

Brooks makes the case that conservatives need to frame their arguments in terms of fairness and concern for the poor, rather than in abstract, bookkeeping terms. Entitlement reform, for example, needs to be undertaken not because we need to balance the books, but because these programs must be there for the poor, and the poor will be hurt the most by a fiscal meltdown. And he reminds the crowd that free market economics has lifted more people out of poverty than any idea in the history of the world. “Lead with vulnerable people, lead the poor, ” he urges. He counsels conservatives to take that message to all sorts of audiences including liberal civil rights groups, even those whose members for now won’t vote for conservatives.

This is not a pose, as he argues. It is only because the left has such a monopoly on rhetorical fairness that conservatives resist Brooks’s and others’ suggestion to focus policies on people and the outcomes they achieve. You would think conservatives would be delighted to hear that reframing their arguments are all that stands between them and success at the polls. (I argue that some substantive adjustments are needed as well, but that I’ve discussed elsewhere.) And yet there is a mass freak-out when the RNC implores them to do exactly what Brooks suggests, focus on the lives of ordinary Americans. Why is that?

For one thing, conservatives in the blogosphere and out in the grass roots have gotten so used to mocking liberals and deploring phony sentimentalism that they have leapt to the conclusion that personalizing politics is itself wrong or unconservative. This is silly of course, but all too common.

Moreover, there is a bit of a Stockholm Syndrome going on. Beleaguered conservatives have gotten so used to being labeled as cold-hearted by the left that they seem to have internalized that identity. The thinking is that as conservatives they can’t adopt more empathetic language or argue from the point of view of the poor because that would be inauthentic.

Now a good deal of the crabbing and objection to common sense advice flows from the activist-pundit-marketers who have made a nice living being aggrieved, ornery and on the outs with elected officials. That is good for clicks and fundraising, but bad for politics, which is the business of translating ideas into practice by, among other things, winning elections.

Whatever the root of the problem, conservatives should get over it. (I sometimes wonder if they would scream bloody murder if the GOP “establishment” came up with a cure for cancer on the grounds that was a sellout and just pandering to voters.) The good news for Republicans is that most politicians in competitive races are pragmatic since they do want to get elected, and most Republican voters are tired of losing. Both these impulses will work in favor of innovation and flexibility. If so, some Republicans might actually win Senate and presidential races and then get to put conservatives policies into place.

UPDATE: One conservative who gets it is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who won a purple state by nearly 20 points and has an approval rating over 60 percent.