The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, November 10, 2008

New Candidates, Old Message Key for the GOP

Republicans are smarting more than might seem obvious following last Tuesday’s election. Conventional wisdom dictated that 2008 was doomed to be a weak year for GOP candidates all around. Yet many Republicans realized that Barack Obama was also a weak Democratic challenger or, at least, weaker than expected.

Obama’s popular vote win was decisive enough; even more so his Electoral College victory, propelled by flipping a handful of red states into the blue column. On the other hand, a true landslide of epic proportions, such as Nixon’s in 1972 or Reagan’s in 1984, was well within the realm of possibility but not reached.

Republicans agreed, even during the campaign, that the GOP was guilty of “losing its way” but split over exactly what this meant. One faction held the problem was not being conservative enough, especially regarding fiscal discipline. A second faction maintained the problem was being too conservative, especially on social issues. Both factions insisted GOP shortcomings were driving Independents and other types of swing voters away.

Both factions were correct to varying degrees but it is now clear that, among themselves, Republicans apparently have decided they need to be more conservative rather than less. It seems to me that the GOP’s biggest problem was that it found its ideal Presidential candidate not during the long primary season but in the tumultuous week leading up to its national convention.

In the aftermath of their loss, some McCain advisors have been quick to heap much of the blame on Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The criticisms have some merit. Palin may well have been more liability than asset to McCain’s campaign overall. If you need a metric to prove that charge, consider that her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, consistently looked smarter and more Presidential while standing next to her than he ever did standing alone. This is not a good recommendation for a well-run campaign.

Nonetheless, it does not mean Palin was a poor choice on McCain’s part. The problem is that initial excitement became unrealistic expectations. Palin could not be a positive appeal for all voters. Rather than attract Independents and Democrats disaffected with Obama, as McCain hoped a woman candidate might do, Palin actually scared them off with her sometimes-painful international inexperience and far-right views.

Yet Palin was essential for energizing the right to an extent that McCain was never able to accomplish himself, either before or after she joined his ticket. Indeed, the GOP seemed almost schizophrenic in its embrace of McCain. When he “rose from the dead” after his New Hampshire win and then quickly went on to become the prohibitive Republican frontrunner, many political analysts saw him as a logical and formidable choice.

It appeared Republicans were forsaking conservative ideology for pragmatic electabilty, choosing a candidate who could match Obama’s attraction to moderates. Yet the Republican base first forced McCain to jettison and renounce any moderate positions he had ever previously endorsed and then still failed to warm to him even after he did so.

Palin’s negatives are real but they are repairable. She probably left Alaska with just as much national and foreign policy experience that Obama had when he left Illinois. The difference is that Obama then had two years in the Senate and two more years during a grueling national campaign to acquire the necessary facts and polish. Palin, by comparison, had only eight weeks to do so.

In spite of this, Palin clearly demonstrated a charisma that allowed her to not only excite but also connect with potential GOP voters at a gut level. “She's somewhat of a diamond in the rough,” said former Republican National Committee member Barbara Alby. RNC Chairman Robert Duncan agrees, ranking her as one of the rising stars of the Party, along with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Virginia Representative Eric Cantor, who just assumed the House Minority Whip position from his old mentor, Roy Blunt.

Grover Norquist, a leading conservative and president of Americans for Tax Reform, called Palin “one of five or six people who is a plausible candidate for president in 2012,” along with familiar names like Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The up-and-coming young Republicans all share two characteristics with Palin – they are highly charismatic and they far more conservative, in every sense of the word, than John McCain. So even if Palin is not personally fated to run for President in 2012 or beyond, it is likely the next GOP nominee will be Palinesque. She is the new model for Republican candidates.

That new model could make a significant difference. New York Times political correspondent John Harwood pointed out Sunday that the 2.74 million votes Obama received in winning my home state of Ohio almost exactly matched John Kerry’s losing effort here in 2004. Obama won because McCain received 300,000 fewer votes than President Bush did four years earlier.

Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate ascribes this shortfall in part to diminished enthusiasm by the Republican base. Obama and the Democrats might have faced a very different outcome in Ohio and other swing states had conservatives been as excited by the person at the top of the Republican ticket as they were by Palin in the number two slot.

However, Republicans need more than a charismatic candidate in their search to carry out another Reagan revolution. They also need to turn their message back to the neglected middle class.

National Review senior editor, Ramesh Ponnuru, also writing in the New York Times last Friday, warns the GOP “not to abandon social conservatism, which would alienate many of the voters Republicans still have.”

He may have a point. One of the more insightful comments concerning the election post-mortem came from Peter Wehner, a former deputy assistant to President Bush, who observed, “The Republican Party is in worse shape than conservatism.” The religious right agrees with that assessment. In spite of Democratic gains in the White House and Congress, they point to the successful passage this year of state constitution gay marriage bans in California, Arizona and Florida.

Rather than adjust their ideology, Ponnuru argues that Republicans must gear their policies and proposals to benefit the middle class. He asserts that McCain had attractive policies in the areas of taxes, cutting earmarks and federal spending, and healthcare. However, he counters, “At no point did Republicans suggest how these policies would lead to any tangible improvements for average Americans.”

Cantor of Virginia, noted as a champion for fiscal discipline, fumed the other day over how the GOP had allowed Democrats to co-opt the middle class. “All of a sudden you hear Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Chuck Schumer talk about the middle class as if the Democrats own the middle class issue,” he told Newsweek. “The middle class is, really was, our playing field. That's how Ronald Reagan came into power, that's how Newt Gingrich came into power, is to stick up for the working families . . . If nothing else, we couldn't get the message out. Look, Barack Obama ran as a conservative.”

It remains unclear whether the better angels of their Main Street nature will touch Republicans in 2012 and beyond. However, they have a plethora of attractive, appealing young candidates to serve as heralds of that message should they choose to do so. If some Democrats are guilty of deifying Obama as “the One,” Republicans will have a whole pantheon of demigods whose ambrosia they will have to resist swilling like Kool-Aid next time around.

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