Republican Ed Gillespie has an uphill climb to take down Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), although in a wave election nationalized by Obamacare, it is certainly doable. Win or lose, Gillespie has an almost pitch-perfect message other Republicans should listen to.
Last Friday at a Republican gathering, he explained the GOP’s dilemma:
We need to talk about the things that we are for. We’re pretty united in what we’re against. We know what’s not working. We see it every day, and the American people see it every day. But what we’re for takes a lot more work. We know that our principles are in the best interest of the country. We can see the lousy economy that we’re dealing with right now. We can see the lost jobs. We can see the lower take-home pay. We can see the higher health care costs and the higher energy prices that are squeezing working Americans. We have to utterly reject the notion that liberals would have the American people believe that this is the new normal. The new normal is the old mediocre, and we can do better. This is not our fate. This is a matter of poor policy decisions that have been made. We can turn things around and make things better with the right policies.
So far so good. But he also put the challenge in concrete terms:
[Democrats] think it is a great thing to increase the minimum wage and destroy half a million entry level jobs — the first rung on the economic ladder for so many Americans. Now, there are people — a very slight percentage — that we know make the minimum wage and are the head of their household. We should help those people. But we can help those people without destroying the 500,000 entry level jobs that give people the opportunity to get into the workforce. A lot of these people are first time entrants to the workforce — second earners in a family, teenagers, young people. Give them the opportunity to find out what it means to earn a paycheck, to get to work on time, to experience the dignity of work. And that’s what’s so important here. Because we understand as conservatives and people who believe in free markets and free people that there’s not just economic value in labor and people. There is human dignity in work, and we need to make sure that more people experience that dignity. Our policies would do that. We need to promote that with vigor.
Indeed they do. Gillespie also can share his own personal story of upward mobility — from immigrant parents, to working his way through college by parking cars, to adviser to the president. (“From an immigrant janitor to working in the Oval Office serving the leader of the free world in two generations time. What a country.”) He says it so that people understand he understands where they are coming from, what their concerns are and what help they need. In all the CPAC speeches and the right-wing groups’ e-mail attacks, one rarely gets the sense that these politicians were ever anything but well-to-do politicians who have easy applause lines for the base to cheer. Gillespie is raising the bar, in essence telling Republicans you have to get out of the bubble and talk like a real person to real people not already hard-bitten conservatives. (“We say, ‘Repeal Obamacare.’ That’s a process argument. Bringing down health care costs, allowing you to keep the doctor you care about . . . We have to talk in terms that resonate with people in everyday life and make those lives better. But we too often talk in process. We have to discipline ourselves and guard against that. We can’t talk short-hand all the time. Shorthand is great with our base, but it doesn’t resonate with those voters in the middle who are very concerned right now about the fact that they’re working 28 hours a week instead of 40 hours a week for wages because of these mandates and regulations.”)
If you think about it, Democrats don’t talk about John Stuart Mill or quote at length about Henry David Thoreau or read from the collected works of John Kenneth Galbraith. They talk about health care, jobs and the environment. What — you are against those things? Their policies may not work, but their rhetoric sure does. Republicans seem to consider it a sin to talk about the end products of conservative governance. It is a grave error; that is the only thing most people care about.
Over the past 10 years, the conservative vocabulary has gotten cramped and predictable. (“Free markets,” “Take away our freedom,” etc.) It has become devoid of meaning for the average voter. And with insistence on talking in ideological terms rather than human terms, Republicans lose their audience before they are halfway through lecturing the crowd about “the rule of law” and “the Founding Fathers.” It’s time for them to retire empty phrases, hyperbole (“Tyranny!”) and start focusing on what average voters care about. If they don’t, average voters won’t care to vote for them.