There’s nothing like losing a war to destroy morale. The Republican defeats in 2008 and 2012 have convinced much of its leadership that the future lies with the left. They are not debating whether to concede defeat, but which territories of principle to surrender.
These political Darwins are frantically rooting through the Democratic trash cans in search of new evolutionary pathways. Amnesty is being railroaded through in the middle of the night. Some call for abandoning social conservatism. Others call for abandoning fiscal conservatism. If both sides get their way, the Republican Party will end up evolving into the Democratic Party.
The big mistake of the last election was assuming that public dissatisfaction with Obama would be enough to remove him. Reagan’s defeat of Carter was frequently invoked without understanding that Reagan’s victory lay in his ability to communicate to the public why they were worse off now and why they would be better off with a change of government, not in some abstract national sense, but in a way that would directly impact their wallets. Reagan focused on inflation. What did Romney focus on?
Believing in historical inevitability is usually a leftist fallacy, but this time around it was the Republicans who approached an election from the standpoint of historical inevitability. While Romney talked about the big national issues, Obama turned his entire campaign into a targeted voter turnout operation. The messiah of 2008 morphed back into the community organizer in 2012.
Obama’s worldview did not win. Not in 2008 or 2012. His tactics did. The Republican Party does not have to evolve or devolve into the Democratic Party. What it must do is learn to connect with voters.
The seeds of defeat in 2012 were planted after the midterm election. After his midterm defeat, Obama Inc.’s goal was to make the new Republican Congress appear useless and irrelevant. For the next two years, Obama Inc. portrayed Republicans as useless wranglers who were not interested in actually getting anything done that would benefit people. That portrayal was sent up from the think-tanks, passed through the political leadership and marinated in the media.
During the first debate, the public briefly saw a Romney who did not fit that profile, but it was too little too late. What they had seen for the last two years was futile argument. And that is still what they are seeing now.
Obama understands that the ability to set the agenda is what counts. He does not view the battle as procedural and cares very little for process even when it is enshrined in the Constitution. As a former community organizer, he understands that it is the power to set the agenda in the mind of the public that counts and that once that is done, legal procedures become a formality that can be swept aside. So long as he can determine what the urgent task that needs doing now is, all else becomes irrelevant.
The Republican Congress of 1994 understood that setting the public agenda mattered more than anything else. They were eventually outmaneuvered by Clinton, but only at the cost of making their agenda his. Our Republican Congress is determined to pull off the opposite maneuver; adopting Obama’s agenda and then trying to claim credit for it. Not only are their odds of getting centrist credit for amnesty or higher taxes utterly hopeless, but wanting credit for either one is not a brilliant political maneuver; it’s a symptom of political decline.
Can Obama be stopped? He can, but it requires taking control of the public agenda. In the current media environment that is extremely difficult, but not impossible. The Tea Party won the argument on ObamaCare by concentrating on populist protests and hammering home the personal economic issues. The left eventually figured out how to clumsily duplicate that effort with Occupy Wall Street.
The Republican Congress failed to define a public agenda that the public would actually care about. While they briefly made Obama nervous about the national debt, spending alone was not an issue that connected with the public. And unlike Reagan, they failed to link it to family finances in a compelling way.
Obama has a very simple playbook. 1. Create anxiety about an issue. 2. Demand action on it. 3. Hammer the Republicans for their inaction. Every morning the news stories are largely a reflection of one of the three phases of that strategy.
In this game, Republicans can either take the initiative or defend their lack of action on the Obama agenda. What we are seeing lately is a Republican Party that is constantly on the defensive, trying to explain why they haven’t yet done what Obama wants them to do and how they would have done it already if he didn’t keep on interrupting them.
The Republican Party does need to “evolve.” It needs to evolve into becoming a predator, instead of its prey. What it doesn’t need to do is adopt a Democratic agenda. That way lies one defeat after another as every game becomes an away game played by rules that make winning all but impossible.
The very act of “evolving” on a position is an admission of defeat. It concedes that the other side is setting the policy priorities and the best you can do is try to jump on their bandwagon. If you find yourself having to evolve on a position, then you’re allowing yourself to be drawn into the wrong argument.
Winning an argument against Obama is not impossible, but it begins with the basics. People respond best to their own dollar-and-cent issues. Reagan understood that vision has to be grounded in daily life. The votes that count begin not with the big issues, but the little ones. The politicians who can connect to the little issues are seen as caring. Those who cannot may have the right answers and the better vision, but they also have the uphill battle in any election.
When Bush I faced off against Clinton, he couldn’t handle a ridiculous question about how the national debt had affected him personally that Reagan would have finessed and that Clinton did fineness with his infamous, “I feel your pain” line. It was a shameless moment, but Republicans who can’t handle that question have no business even trying out for the top spot.
Obama can be stopped and his policy agenda can be slowed down, but doing that will require not just talking about small government, but thinking in small government terms. Too many of the politicians who preach small government, talk and think like big government. Small government doesn’t begin with big plans, but with small ones. It begins with helping people by taking on an issue that they care about.
With a Democratic Senate and a Democrat in the White House, the House of Representatives may be crippled, but it can still forcefully advance an agenda. Its greatest challenge is not choosing where to evolve, but how to become relevant to a country that is searching for someone to fight for them. If it learns to pick the right fights, then the game can still change.
If the Republican Party wants to put its own stamp on the next two years, it will have to pick a gut issue and turn that into the centerpiece of an economic agenda. If it doesn’t, then Obama Inc. will go on depicting it as useless and irrelevant.
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