Many of you reading this probably felt a kick in the gut when the election results came in. Filled with optimism by Republican pollsters predicting a landslide victory, the outcome came as an even bigger shock.
Losing is never fun or easy and can lead to a temporary state of shell shock in which bad decisions get made. Some in the Republican establishment are now operating in that state of shock and proposing to dismantle every conservative position in the hopes of appearing more moderate in the next election. That is a futile and destructive course of action.
The Republican Party ran two moderates, whose liberal credentials were acknowledged by the media, and lost two presidential elections. Neither Senator McCain nor Governor Romney would have been described as extreme until they ran for president. The same fate will meet any Republican candidate, no matter how moderate or centrist.
Running a candidate who signs off on tax hikes, amnesty for illegal aliens, gay marriage and abortion will not win an election against a Democrat who already stands for all those things. Abandoning fiscal and social conservatism will leave the Republican Party with nothing to offer to the public except its moderate willingness to abandon its principles for other principles that poll better.
To understand why a sellout is not the solution, all we have to do is compare how the Democrats and the Republicans approached the 2012 elections.
The Democrats turned to their base, offering special favors to narrow constituencies, from a unilateral DREAM Act to gay marriage to mandatory abortion coverage. These positions were all extreme and some of them were unpopular, but they brought out the affected groups in large numbers.
The Republican Party neglected its base and rushed to the center in pursuit of the voters that it didn’t have. Romney made an effective case for being the one to fix the economy, but only in generalities, while Obama successfully made the case to groups within his base that he was going to take care of their special interests. While Romney won the macro argument, Obama took the micro and in a low turnout election used it to win.
In response, the Republican establishment seeks to run even further to the center, even though it’s a center defined wholly by the ascendancy of the left, which pulls the center to the left every time it asserts new extremist positions. The only outcome of this strategy is to give the left more uncontested victories while encouraging voters who might have come out for the Republican Party to stay home once again.
The Republican Party has two choices. It can chase after the center, with amnesty and tax cuts in hand, or it can move to the right in order to redefine where the center is. The second way is the path that Reagan and Gingrich took. The first way is what cost Republicans a second election against Obama.
Let’s strip away ideology for a moment and ask the simple question that every voter going to the polls asked. That question was not, as the pollsters put it, “Who do I trust more on the economy?” or “Who showed more leadership based on last night’s debate?” but “Who is going to look out for my economic interests?”
Minority voters voted with their food stamps and race cards. They voted for affirmative action and government jobs. These were votes based on economic interest. Considering the catastrophic toll of the Obama years on the African-American income, it was a shortsighted vote, but Madoff’s clients also thought that they were acting in their own economic interest. And something for nothing looks even more tempting in a bad economy.
But they weren’t the only ones voting with their wallets. The Julia vote came out for free birth control. The gay vote was there for partner benefits. And there were plenty of non-minorities also looking to protect their government benefits, their union jobs and the other touchstones of their economic life. They came out for Obama, not because they had any remaining enthusiasm for him, but because his extremist campaign had given him credibility as a man who would defend his base. A man who would stand up for them.
The Romney campaign was unable to bring out as large a base that was as deeply committed to its own besieged economic interests. Small business owners flocked to Romney and his rallies revealed a depth of passion for free enterprise, but there just weren’t enough people who felt the same way. There weren’t enough workers who felt that Romney would bring back manufacturing, not enough small business owners who really believed that the end of the red tape parade had come and not enough of the unemployed who thought that it was in their economic best interest to vote for Romney. There just weren’t enough voters with that same sense of personal investment in Romney’s agenda that there were in Obama’s agenda.
It’s easy to dismiss them as fools, but that cathartic reaction does not accomplish anything. As any good businessman knows, to rack up sales, you need more than just a good product, you also need good marketing. Cursing the customer because the sales aren’t there accomplishes nothing and is defeatist. The only way to move a product is to convince customers that they need this product and that they can’t live without it.
This is where conservatives are now. We have a great product and lousy marketing. And we have three choices.
We can make our product more like the one sold by our competitors in the hopes of winning over their customers, even though it makes our product indistinguishable from theirs.
We can increase our customer loyalty program and our sales to the people who already buy our product.
Or we can try to move into territories that don’t buy what either side is selling because they don’t see how it serves their economic interests.
Those last two options are not mutually exclusive. However pursuing the first option cuts us off from the second option and makes the third option trickier because moderation is not a selling point to people who already believe that both parties are the same bunch of crooks with no principles. All it does is confirm their thesis.
A political party has to stand for something besides winning elections. There has to be a reason for people to come out and support it and being non-threatening and unprincipled is not a reason; it is an election strategy thought up by consultants who understand chess better than they understand people.
In a tough economic climate, victories go to the candidate that can make a compelling case for the economic interests of the individual, rather than the national economic interest. That is a hard fact of human nature, which is survival oriented, and in this election Democrats understood it and Republicans did not.
The Republican Party does not have an image problem; it has a constituency problem. The GOP can either find a constituency and stand by it, or it can cheat on its constituency at every turn by running for the center. The Democrats won by standing by their constituency. Maybe it’s time that the Republican Party considered following their example.
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