So far, the RNC hasn’t asked for our assessment of yesterday’s electoral defeat. Not that we expect it; from what we hear, the jockeying and back-biting has already begun; more urgent tasks–including a critical analysis of what went wrong and what should be done to re-build the party–will have to wait.
Toward that latter goal, we humbly offer our take on John McCain’s defeat, and where the party should go from here. The good news is that conservatism is far from finished; in fact, where it actually appeared on the ballot, it flourished. Voters in California, Arizona and Florida approved referendums that banned gay marriage.
That’s right, a majority in California, arguably the most liberal state in the nation, rebuked liberal judges who had flaunted state law, and allowed gay couples to tie the knot. Did we mention that the leaders of Proposition 8 were mostly church pastors and other grass roots organizers? Or that supporters of gay marriage (including Hollywood) spent millions against the initiative? In the bluest of states, conservatives took on the liberal establishment and won.
There were other glimmers of hope for conservatives on Tuesday, but you have to look hard to find them. At this writing, it appears that Harry Reid will be denied his “filibuster-proof” majority in the Senate, and Democratic gains in the House won’t be as large as first feared. In some states, the GOP remains on the ascendancy; Republicans in Tennessee captured majorities in the state house and senate for the first time in more than 40 years.
Still, there’s little doubt that the Republican brand has been badly damaged and is in need of repairs. And that was painfully obvious at the top of the ticket, when John McCain (and the GOP) ran a gallant, yet flawed campaign. Amid the ashes of that effort, the party must begin to rebuild and prevent another debacle in 2012. As a part of that process, we suggest the party adopt the following suggestions:
1. Never Nominate Another Inarticulate Candidate. This marked the fifth consecutive presidential campaign where the GOP nominee was less articulate than his rival. Of course, no one can really remember what Bill Clinton promised in ’92 or ’96; what about classic quotes from Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry four years later? Heck, even Barack Obama’s speeches were little more than fluff.
But, in comparison to John McCain’s mechanical stump speech, even Obama’s boilerplate sounded like soaring poetry. Why does it matter? Because in an age of soundbites and an ill-educated electorate, coherence on the campaign trail is equated with competence as a leader. Conservatives need someone who can forcefully articulate their message with style and flair. It is ironic that several GOP candidates met those criteria (Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney come to mind), but they couldn’t secure the nomination. Thankfully, McCain appears to be the last Republican presidential candidate with the problem.
2. Money, Money, Money. By promising to accept public financing, Senator McCain helped seal his own fate. With a limited budget, the GOP nominee couldn’t match Obama’s advertising blitz and didn’t launch ads in some states (including Virginia) until it was too late. The irony, of course, is obvious. As a champion of campaign finance reform, Mr. McCain helped create the system that helped sow his political defeat. The money lesson from 2008 is simple; public financing is for losers. If the party wants to win in 2012, the GOP needs to rebuild its money machine and match the Democrats dollar for dollar.
3. Bloodsport, Anyone? Sad to say, but many Republicans were still abiding by Queensbury rules while the Democrats fought a back-alley brawl. Democrat opposition research became fodder for their allies in the MSM, while Mr. McCain took the high road. Democrats howled about the “attacks” on Barack Obama’s past associations, but fact is, the messages were rather mild. McCain himself took Reverend Wright off the table, and his attacks on other, radical associates of Obama (hellooo, Bill Ayers) were half-hearted, even tepid. Governor Sarah Palin was far more effective in that role, until she was savaged by the media, and McCain put her under wraps for a week or so in late September.
Bottom line: politics is a blood spot, where winning is a prerequisite for governing. Until Republicans understand that–and fight–they won’t become a majority party again.
4. Know Your Media Base. There was consternation in the McCain camp when his buddies from The New York Times launched a full-scale assault of the Senator and members of his family. Running against the anointed favorite of the press corps, McCain somehow thought he would remain a media darling. And, at the same time, he was slow to cultivate relations with members of the conservative “new” media, including talk radio. Conservative hosts eventually supported McCain–they had no other choice–but their enthusiasm for the nominee matched his indifference to them. One result? The GOP base remained fractured until Sarah Palin was added to the ticket. Future Republican presidential nominees need to know–and support– their real friends in the media, and they don’t work for the Washington Post.
Memo for any Republican considering a run in 2012. Get out in front of opposing a “new” Fairness Doctrine, and you’ll get a leg up on the nomination.
5. Don’t Abandon Timeless Messages. Four years into an Obama administration, the concepts of lower taxes, less government and strong national security will probably resonate with the electorate. But the Republicans need to find someone who can give voice to those principles and, better yet, offer a record based on those same values. The notion of a “Big Tent” needs to be given the boot. Ronald Reagan brought Democrats and independents into the party by selling his ideals–not modifying them to suit various segments of the electorate.
6. Rebuild State and Local Parties. GOP loyalists were stunned when they lost Ohio and Virginia on Tuesday. But John McCain’s loss was preceded by a reversal of Republican fortunes in both states. Democrats captured most statewide offices in the Buckeye State in 2006, and defeated Republican Senator Mike DeWine to boot. In Virginia, Democrats have won two consecutive gubernatorial races, and the last two campaigns for U.S. Senate. Until the GOP fixes its problems in both states, Democrats will likey expand their gains.
The good news is that conditions in Ohio and Virginia can be remedied, if the GOP rallies around proven leaders like former Congressman John Kasich in Ohio, and Attorney General Bob McDonnell in the Old Dominion. The bad news is that neighboring states like Pennsylvania and Michigan are in even worse shape.
7. Assemble a More Effective Leadership Team in Washington. Like it or not, the minority leaders in the House and Senate will be the faces of the GOP, at least until 2010. We’ve been told that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Ohio Congressmen John Boehner want to keep those jobs, but with all due respect, it may be time for a change. We support Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor’s bid for minority whip, and more responsibility for another Republican rising star, Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling, and our own favorite, Indiana’s Mike Pence.
8. Learn to Fight Back. John McCain suffered (in part) because Democrats were able to link him, successfully to George W. Bush. The President, in turn, became a pariah because he was defined in terms selected by his political opponents and their allies in the MSM. How did Mr. Bush respond? Mostly, he didn’t. Apparently, he believed that getting down into the political mud sullied his office and the nation’s view of it. That’s a touching idea, but it is horribly misguided in a era of non-stop news cycles. For only a brief, shining moment–during the late Tony Snow’s stint as press secretary–did the White House forcefully engage its critics, and present its message with clarity and vision.
Good luck to the GOP–they’ll need it.