Walking around in a daze like a group of non-flesh eating zombies, my Republican friends are still in mourning following the lashing we took in last month’s election. Confused and beleaguered conservatives are reacting much like a biblical Job crying out to God “why me?” Not only did we lose the election but our polling numbers were off, we lost on the “get out the vote/ground game” and we failed to take advantage of new technologies like on-line voter registration. The Democrats simply did a better job at all of those things. As I sat through several meetings yesterday with some pretty smart people trying to puzzle through this devastating loss, I formed my own opinion that the GOP largely has done this to itself by fragmenting its base and not rallying behind common factors.
Many conservatives have become “checkmark” Republicans. These “checkmark” Republicans have their own personal list of 10-15 attributes that are “must haves” for any candidate that they are going to support. A hypothetical list could something like 1) pro-life, 2) against any form of gun control, 3) against higher taxes, 4) against larger government, 5) against wealth redistribution, 6) against gay marriage, 7) for public pension reform, 8) for prayer in school, 9) for limitations on government power, 10) for a strong national defense, 11) against any program of amnesty for illegal immigrants, 12) against subtle forms of religious intolerance under the guise of “separation of church and state,” 13) for a balanced national budget, 14) for a school voucher system, and 15) for entitlement reform. Under the theories of Thomas Jefferson who advocated the election of the person that we view as the best “trustee” of the public good, a Republican with the listed values would vote for the person with the stances that most closely supports the majority of the items on the checklist. Obviously some factors could be more heavily weighted than others, but there would be a rough evaluation resulting in the selection of the candidate whose interests most closely align with those of that voter.
What is happening within the GOP today is that many conservatives are using ALL of this checklist as absolutes and refusing to support candidates that fail to meet ALL of their personal criteria. This approach has several detrimental consequences including decreasing the intensity of support of candidates deemed “not conservative enough.” The also approach increases internal party divisiveness, destroying unity and making the GOP look a lot like the keystone cops. Checkmark candidate support makes conservative candidates less electable by driving away natural constituencies like latino and asian Americans. It creates opportunities for the left to unfairly characterize the party as “intolerant,” and makes it very difficult for the GOP to create a cohesive message – and believe me, in this election cycle the Republicans completely failed in any effort they made to provide an attractive message to the American people.
The checkmarking system used to be a Democratic party problem as liberals would fracture the party if a candidate was pro-life or for reasonable immigration control even if the majority of that candidate’s other views were largely acceptable to them. Today the tables are turned and the Democrats have united behind the general banner of Obamacare style ”government can fix all” theories and the concept that the ”wealthy are not pulling their weight.” Minor differences were cast aside and the left was able to make history by re-electing a President that had failed for four years in every measurable way. As one high-profile Republican commentator said a month before the election “If we can’t win a Presidential election in this environment, the Republican party has to be torn about and rebuilt from the ground.” I think her words were prophetic and I think that is exactly what must happen.
Three key issues must be addressed by the GOP to become relevant again: 1) we must focus on fiscal conservatism and control rampant spending and stop increasing the national debt; 2) we must support and adopt reasonable immigration reform, 3) we must attract more women to the party. Dealing with these three issues will give the GOP unified purpose and a greatly expanded support base to allow us to be competitive again.
Preeminent among all things conservative in my mind is a government that taxes and spends responsibly and within its means. Less government is generally better than more government and the Constitution was adopted to protect the people from the government and not the other way around. Republicans have not been any better on this issue than Democrats. Catering to individual donors and constituencies, members of both parties have spent irresponsibly and added to a byzantine and bloated government. Neither party has made a real effort to balance the budget or to force the government to “live within its means” – that has to change. Fiscal responsibility for the government needs to be the central rallying cry of the party with everything else being viewed as secondary. No vibrant free market economy, no country – it really is that simple.
The GOP must also undertake reasonable immigration reform. Today we live in the unacceptable situation where we have laws on the books that are openly ignored because of the inaction of BOTH parties. Failing to resolve our border security and immigration issues is critical for Democrats who know full well that mutual and acceptable resolution of those issues would remove the only existing barrier between Latinos and the Republican party. As Republicans, we have fallen into this trap and allowed business interests who financially benefit from the cheap labor provided through maintenance of the status quo to block all meaningful efforts at reform. Democrats will continue to push for almost meaningless but very well named programs such as the “Dream Act.” Comprehensive reform is needed and those against anything that they would call “amnesty” just need to get over it or the GOP will remain neutered and irrelevant. Comprehensive and bi-partisan immigration reform will go a long way to reversing an untrue but very effective myth of the left that the GOP is nothing more than a group of old, white, christian men. I am one of those, but I am surrounded by folks in my party with completely diverse backgrounds and perspectives and I just want the rest of the country to see that.
Finally, the GOP must bridge the perception gap with women. Somehow we have allowed the left to paint us as “anti-woman” and the DNC’s campaign has worked. That has to stop. The strategy of the left has been simple, focus on the extreme and marginal example and treat that as the issue. Unfortunately Republicans have fallen for this tactic frequently and the media pounces on every mis-step. Even I won’t blame the media for this one though, the GOP has repeatedly shot itself in the foot on this issue and it has cost us dearly. I do not agree with those that say that men should have no role in this debate, it is far more important that the party stay on message. The DNC has actually done an excellent job of creating the agenda and then staying on message – that is a lesson the GOP must learn.