Let’s take a look at the Election of 2008, why it happened, and what it means to conservatism. Fred Thompson told a joke as a warning to not learn the wrong lesson from this election:
The point of this joke is that it is easy to over analyze the results and conclude that conservatism is a failure, and must moderate to attract voters. I’ve seen this theory advanced by others here on this site, such as Han, and also conservative pundits, such as David Frum and David Brooks. But that would be a mistake. Jay Nordlinger told me over dinner,
There is nothing wrong with the Republican Party and Conservatism. What we need are better candidates.
This point is emphasized by Fred Thompson, when he looks at the election in a historical context:
In all of our history, no party has ever won a third term in a down economy.
While this is certainly a time for self exploration, and we do now need to worry about the governance provided by the Democrats, it would be a mistake to over analyze the results and conclude that we need to make dramatic changes in our party, other than sticking to our core principles. Ramesh Ponnuru makes a point over on the Corner about the results of McCain underperformance among minorities, and the results in the swing states. It is easy to take the wrong message from this (I think Ramesh is being sloppy with this post by not providing analysis, and allowing the readers to draw their own conclusions). This election is not about our failure to engage in identity politics, or to become “Democrat Lite”. It is about our failure to show how our principles and policy proposals provide solutions for all Americans, including minorities.
An example of this potential pitfall was during an exchange between Byron York and Pat Toomey. Byron made the point that entitlement reform, for all of its necessity, is a political loser. Even with a current $70 trillion dollar obligation to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, so many voters have become dependent that we end up with political gridlock when trying to address the problem. Pat Toomey disagreed with this analysis, saying that properly framing reform in terms of opportunity is an untapped market for Conservatives,
If you can convince the voter that under a reformed program they will achieve more prosperity than under the current system, you can win their hearts on the issue.
Mitt Romney also made a very interesting moral point on this issue,
The current entitlement situation is inherently evil. It represents the greatest cross generational theft in the history of mankind.
The point is that these issues, and our policy proposals, are not based on identity politics. We shouldn’t engage in the game that the Democrats are playing.
During a keynote session with Mitt, he talked a great deal about the importance of our core principles for future political success. The trend has been to move toward government involvement in solving social problems; with an example being that currently over 50% of healthcare provided in the country is provided by the government. This is inherently wrong, since every problem faced by the country can be addressed by a solution that doesn’t involve government take over. It will be critical for us to fight strongly against the single payer system that Democrats advocate. He believes that voters are very aware of the three legs of the Conservative stool (Social, Fiscal, Security) and resonate with our principles. But we have to show integrity in the application of those principles, and competence in management. If our principle is financial restraint, we can’t be growing discretionary spending, it sends the wrong message to the voters. Meanwhile, Republicans are able to win in New England state races (e.g. Rhode Island) by being able to display management and fiscal competence. Here is Mitt discussing the importance of our core principles:
Mitt also had suggestions on how to tactically approach getting our principles and policy proposals out into the electorate. He stated that it is a shame that the “Vast Right Wing Conspiracy” is a myth conjured by the left, and that we really do need it now to combat the fact that the left is using the Internet much more effectively that we are.
We need to organize across the Internet and our advocacy groups to be effective.
He also believes that we need to reach out strongly to college campuses and engage the younger voters with our beliefs and principles. This is something I wrote about after the election as one of our critical failings that must be addressed. Getting around media bias is also important,
While I was Governor, I had to battle against the media’s desire to ignore our policies and activities. One of the ways I did this was once a week I would do a day of work as one of our state employees. One day I rode on the back of a garbage truck, another day I worked as a paver on a road crew. Besides giving me a great appreciation of the actual difficulties in the jobs, it also forced TV to cover me once a week. Sure, it was a bit of political theater, but it was effective.
The final points he made were that recruitment of candidates, much like Rahm Emanuel did in 2006, is critical, as is mobilizing our fund raising capability. The ability of the left to respond so quickly in Michele Bachmann’s race is a capability we need to be able to match.
When looking at the specific outcomes of the elections, a number of insights were offered. Mitt was asked why Hillary lost, and responded with the following joke:
The point being that while she considered herself inevitable, not everyone had the same dream of her being president.
Ken Blackwell was also asked about the election results, especially in Ohio. He began with the following story,
Back when I was a Golden Gloves boxer, my mentor was a Jesuit Priest who was a tremendous fan of boxing. One day we were at the ring and I noticed one of the boxers making the sign of the cross before entering the ring. I asked the priest, “What does this mean?” He responded, “It doesn’t mean a damn thing if he doesn’t know how to fight.”
Part of the reason for our loss in the election is that despite McCain’s rhetoric to “Fight, Fight, Fight”, he wasn’t willing to do so. Many electoral issues were left on the table, because of his desire to fight honorably. As Jim Geraghty and I discussed, the effect of the polls in suppression of turnout among our base was effective. Ultimately, we lost Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida because we were unable to turn out the conservative base due to depression and apathy toward our candidate. It wasn’t because we didn’t attract moderates. Ken Blackwell pointed out that in Ohio, Obama underperformed Kerry’s results in 2004. However, McCain dramatically underperformed Bush. Here is the Ohio analysis offered by Ken:
Similarly, I talked to Pat Toomey about Pennsylvania. “After the defeat of Rick Santorum, can a conservative still win there?” He assured me that a conservative can win, but the trap that Santorum fell into was allowing himself to be perceived as trying to drive his social conservatism down the throats of the voters. Individual liberty is still a winning philosophy in Pennsylvania, along with fiscal conservatism and national security. You can be a social conservatism, but you have to be careful in the presentation. I should note that Pat and his wife have the cutest children, Bridgette and Patrick.
The truth is that the electorate remains in our camp regarding Conservative philosophy. Darcy Olsen pointed out that we have a marketing problem,
The electorate agrees with our principles, but trusts the Democrats to implement our solutions.
Both Brent Bozell and Pat Toomey offered polling evidence to back this assertion. Pat Toomey mentioned that the Club for Growth did detailed polling in 12 swing districts that were expected to switch parties this year, and in fact 11 of them did switch and all of them voted for Obama. However, the polling showed that their conservative alignment from 2004 is unchanged.
Brent Bozell discussed a similar set of polling that was performed the day before the election:
The analysis he provides is worth repeating,
By 38% to 30% voters believe Democrats will control spending and reduce taxes. By 48% to 26% voters believe Democrats will cut taxes for the middle class. By 41% to 31% voters believe Democrats will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. By 44% to 34% voters believe Democrats will solve the current economic crisis. The final Rasmussen poll showed that 31% of voters believe that Obama will reduce taxes, while only 11% believe McCain will. Obama won as the Reaganite in the race.
Jonah Goldberg made a great point about the left and the center. Over time, the left has become even more insane. When the left cedes the center of the electorate, the temptation is to try and move to occupy that center to and produce an electoral majority. This is a mistake. As a movement, we want to move that center toward our principles and philosophy. Jonah offered the following story,
When Ed Koch lost the election, he was asked if he would run again. He answered, “No, now the voters must be punished.”
There is an element of truth to this statement. Part of our job while out of power is to remind the voters why they have voted for Republicans in the past. They need to be punished for their selection, and suffer the consequences, so that in the future they will make a more informed and mature decision. As Jonah eloquently said,
The voters must be taught, the government cannot love you.
Elections have consequences, but not just in our loss of legislative control. They also have consequences for the voters when they realize that they didn’t get what was advertized, and that the media did them a grave disservice.
In Part 4, I examine the media.
Return to Part 2.