(The Atlantic) Here is the basic diagnosis of what ails the Republican Party from Dr. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. The internal organs are fine. No problem with the composition of the blood that pumps through the party’s activist veins. The brain is top-notch — Republican ideas are well considered, broadly desired, and politically feasible. The body, however, looks ragged; the accent is too…regional (Southern?). The GOP needs to get some exercise. It needs a jot of cologne here, and maybe a hair transplant there. McConnell subscribes to what might be called the “sales job” theory of Democratic dominance. That is — the message is fine; the techniques used to communicate it are not. The “sales job” theory is quite attractive to many Republicans because it relieves them of having to question whether Americans, at their corps, are beginning to distrust what the party stands for, what the party does, who the party is. What a relief! All that’s need are some cosmetics. Maybe it’s Mabeline. McConnell’s view is shared by many Republican current office-holders. It is not the view that Republican strategists tend to hold, and it certainly is not the view of the younger conservative intellectuals, like the Atlantic’s own Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. The massive data compiled by Gallup about party identification suggests that the party has an identity problem.
Other evidence, including exit polls from 2006 and 2008, locate this problem at a microskeletal level: it cannot deal with globalization, with a flat world, with religious diversity, with institutional decay. Since the 1960s, the GOP’s DNA has dutifully replicated activist cells to inflame and attack on culture, and Democratic efforts to minimize the demands and pressure of culture haven’t worked. The selection of Sarah Palin got them replicatin’ again, but then reality — in the form of a global economic crisis — intruded, and Republicans couldn’t fight their way out of a plastic bag.
In his speech to the Republican National Committee today, McConnell offers mostly placebos.
“The first task, in my view, is to find the voters who’ve left the party. As we do this, the temptation for some will be to run from our principles or to dilute our message. I think that’s a temptation we need to resist. These people were Republican for a reason. You don’t get them back by pretending to something else. And you certainly don’t gain voters by running away from the ones that are most loyal. But it’s clear our message isn’t getting out to nearly as many people as it should. We need to give voters who’ve turned away a reason to take another look. And that takes a lot of work.”
He makes an interesting point about religionism; the sales job is the problem, not the product.
“We all hear a lot about how these things have affected our party in particular. We’re all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us. And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one. In politics, there’s a name for a regional party: it’s called a minority party. And I didn’t sign up to be a member of a regional party. I know no one in this room did either. As Republicans, we know that commonsense conservative principles aren’t regional. But I think we have to admit that our sales job has been. And in my view, that needs to change.”
McConnell says that Republicans need to better explain their principles, because “too often we’ve let others define us. And the image they’ve painted isn’t very pretty. Ask most people what Republicans think about immigrants, and they’ll say we fear them. Ask most people what we think about the environment, and they’ll say we don’t care about it. Ask most people what we think about the family, and they’ll tell you we don’t — until about a month before Election Day.”
Easier said that done; what, again, are those principles? Who made the decision to run against immigration? Which party decided that global warming was a liberal conspiracy? Who intervened in the Terri Schiavo case? All of this is to say that Democrats might not be responsible for voters who conclude that Republicans are all these things. The party’s leadership, responding to a variety of pressures, chose to follow certain courses of action. The art of marketing had little to do with it.
“We need to communicate our ideas to everyone who ran away from the Republican Party in November — and to many others. And we need to show them that our policies are developed with a human being in view, not just an abstract principle. As we do this, we should avoid the false choice of being a party of moderates or conservatives. America is diverse. The two major parties should be too. But this doesn’t mean turning our backs on commonsense conservatism, or tailoring our positions to suit particular groups. Our principles are universal. They apply to everyone.”
These principles are what, specifically? And how universal are they?
“Every so often, there comes a time when a political party has to reexamine itself. For Republicans, now is such a time. For some, the work might seem daunting. It shouldn’t — because there are signs that a revival is already taking place.”
McConnell runs down some suggestions.
“Republicans need to explain that when it comes to government spending, it should be limited. And the taxpayer’s burden is our first concern, and that we support programs that create the conditions for individuals and families to flourish. On education, we need to explain that inner-city parents have the same rights to a good education for their kids that suburban parents do — and show them that Republicans will fight this battle until it’s won.”
“Workers need to know that we’re not anti-union — we’re pro employee. That means that when it comes to union elections, Republicans will protect a worker’s right to a secret ballot. On healthcare, we need to explain to people that the best health care in the world is worthless if people can’t afford it — and that Republican policies will drive down costs.”
“On energy independence, Republicans need to explain that our approach is the balanced one. If our twin goals are to keep prices low and reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil, then we need to produce more, conserve more, and invest in the alternative and renewable fuels of the future. The Republican concept of finding more and using less is simple and sensible. People need to know about it. And on the environment, Republicans need to explain that the most effective way to protect the environment is to match our desire to protect it with our desire for prosperity.”
The deal here is that none of this language is new. Republicans have been saying these things for years. Back to the Gallup data: voters identify with the Democrats precisely because of what Republicans stood for; because of the choices their party made in the early part of this decade. Who in the party will make the modest suggestion that maybe it’s time the party stood for something different?