Conservatives are entering week two of the worst election hangover ever experienced. I was never so close to the national process so as to discern the true topline expectations for the 2012 presidential race, but the view from the ground was that it was nothing short of a disaster for Republicans.
Just two days after the election, Politico’s Kenneth Vogel voiced the frustration of high level GOP donors, wondering whether this presidential race was simply a “Billion Dollar Bust?” Stan Hubbard, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Freiss, Ron Kauffman, and the Koch brothers are but a few names on a long list of conservatives who invested tens of millions to ultimately see the Romney campaign fail to secure a single battleground state.
That said the loss could actually be a blessing in disguise if we take time to step back, look inward, and realize that we can make certain changes and become a national party once again. There are a number of fundamental facts that will have to be true if conservatives and Republicans are to truly affect the direction of our country into the future.
The Rebuilding Must Begin Immediately. The 2014 midterms are absolutely critical. In 2012, Republicans lost at least seven seats in the House and now sit at an eight seat disadvantage in the Senate. However, in 2014 Democrats will defend 20 seats, while Republicans only have to defend 13. Six of those Democrats come from “red” states. If we’re to make ideological and strategic adjustments as a party, they must begin now, and be in place for the midterms.
The Establishment Isn’t Working. The current GOP establishment isn’t delivering. We now have three presidential election cycles (Bush 2004 was an anomaly) and the accompanying midterms (particularly the disastrous midterms of 2006) of data. That data screams that the GOP establishment is outdated, out of touch, and unable to deliver. We need fresh ideas, fresh leadership, and a new outlook (not driven by fringes and pledges).
We Must Solve Our Issuephrenia. Are we social conservatives? Are we fiscal conservatives? We are a fractured party, filled with single issue voters, values voters, pragmatists, fiscal voters, and traditional voters. We MUST re-define what our party is about. Sunday, Senator Tom Coburn (R – OK) mourned the failure of the GOP to establish a positive vision in the 2012 elections. Specifically, we must move national security back to the forefront. We must repackage how we discuss economic issues and the national debt – fiscal conservatism is a tough pitch when the average family is swimming in credit card debt – and doesn’t care. We need to embrace certain parts of the libertarian movement – we cannot ask the government to leave our guns alone and, at the same time, ask the government to interfere with the sexual decisions of a person inside their own home. Finally, social conservatism is, and can be, cool. See 2012 Republican Presidential Primary: Rick Santorum for President.
We’re Getting Whipped At The Line of Scrimmage. As an SEC fan, hardly a day passes from September to January that I don’t hear some version of “Our football games are won in the trenches, at the line of scrimmage.” In the SEC, the team with the best linemen wins. That’s also true in politics. The line of scrimmage is the beginning of the debate, where definitions take place. We’re allowing the other side to define our values, our issues, and our personality as a party. That trend must stop. For example, we must stop allowing the left to define us as “anti-woman,” as opposed to defining ourselves as pro-family. This also speaks to the previous point about pitching a positive vision – as long as the left is able to define us as the “party of no,” we lose.
The GOP Must Accept That We Have Failed at Diversity and Commit to Change. Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez chastised the GOP yesterday on CNN’s State of the Union for their poor performance with Hispanic voters. In 2000, Bush won over 40% of the Hispanic vote. In 2008, McCain squeaked out just over 30%, and Romney won a little over 20%. The numbers are bad, and the trend is even worse. It’s even more repulsive when you accept the fact that Hispanic voters are values voters – family centered, faith driven, and defined by work ethic. There’s no excuse for these statistics. The same goes for African American voters. There’s no excuse for only winning 4% of ANY particular voting bloc.
Stop Ignoring the Generational Gap. President Obama overwhelmingly won young voters in the 2012 elections, and Democrats consistently perform better with younger voters. This point is tied directly to the leadership of the GOP. It’s time for the old guard to retire, and a new generation to step up and take the initiative for assuring the future of our party.
We Must Learn How to Fire Up The Base. Hundreds of emails flew about prior to the 2012 election, lauding the excitement of the Republican base. It wasn’t the base. Activists were fired up, but the base was not. Until we find a way to hook and involve average voters with whom we have ideological identification, we will continue to lose the ground game.
It’s the Ground Game, Stupid. The age old, organically created ground game of the labor movement has dominated grassroots politics for decades, and 2012 was no exception. The pro-business, free market leaders of the western world must learn to create an organic, aggressive political machine to match the labor unions. Buying millions in TV ads doesn’t count – it must be manifested in ground troops and political elbow grease.
The Fringes Must Be Managed. Those to whom we can offer our thanks for Todd Akin, Richard Murdock, and pledges for every issue under the sun have been a nice experiment. Certain parts of the tea party have done a fabulous job bringing fundamental fiscal issues back to the forefront. Since that time, most of the fringe elements of the GOP have demonstrated a consistent record of political tomfoolery (see “Romney lost because he was too moderate;” “Hey, y’all, let’s just secede!” In which he calls Romney a “poopyhead.”)
We Must Revitalize The Process for Vetting Candidates. Though we can fundamentally thank the tea party for candidates like Todd Akin, it’s still incumbent upon the Republican Party structure to ensure that candidates like Sarah Palin, Todd Akin, and Linda McMahon aren’t the nominees in critical elections. See importance of 2014 midterms.
We Must Refine Our Voter Expectations. Are voters in the U.S. selfless? Do they care about future generations? Are we still fundamentally a center right nation? How do we exactly expect Americans to vote? For my part, I still consider us to be a center right nation, though I question the true character of our voting electorate. We cannot effectively communicate with voters if we’ve fundamentally mischaracterized them in our messaging assumptions.
Retail Politics Still Works. Again, see 2012 Republican Presidential Primary: Rick Santorum for President. And, if 2012 is any indication, we can’t advertise our way into winning the electoral college.
We Cannot Forsake the Ghost of Reagan. Last week, a local pundit insisted that it was time for the Republican Party to leave behind the ghost of Ronald Reagan. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. The principles and strategies upon which Reagan based his decisions and administrations are more relevant today in democratic republicanism than ever before. It’s critical that we determine how to revitalize and reapply those principles.