What went wrong in 2012?

Imagine an employee had an idea for a new consumer product.  Now imagine that once the employee got the product to market, no one bought purchased it.  This product was a dismal failure.  Now envision the employee’s boss sitting down the employee to discuss what went wrong.  The employee says that he didn’t do anything wrong, that there was nothing else to be desired from his product and that the real problem was the consumer market.  The employee argues that if the consumer market was smarter, more educated and really knew what was good for them – they would have purchased the employees product.

That is what moderate republicans are now claiming following our election failure.  

With the inability of Republicans to gain House seats, Senate seats or the White House, Republican operatives, with their sharpened knives, are trying to find someone to pin their losses on. 

A bad economy?  A weak incumbent?  $1.2 Billion in ad dollars?  They shouldn’t have any excuses when it comes to the White House.  But that doesn’t stop them from using the Shaggy defense – “It wasn’t me,” they say. 

Looking back on the election, the question remains – why did Republicans lose a winnable election by such large margins?  The answer lies in the battle for the soul of conservatism and the party.  Should wide republican losses be blamed on the conservative wing of the party for being too extreme for the electorate?  Or should losses be pinned on the moderate party of the wing that refused to articulate a vision for the nation? 

The answer is more complicated.  The Republican failure to take over the Senate was the fault of conservative and Tea Party candidates – But NOT BECAUSE THEY WERE TOO CONSERVATIVE, but because they were irresponsible candidates that were not ready for prime time.  The Republican failure to take back the White House was the fault of a Republican establishment campaign that refused to explain conservative ideas that could win.  Instead, it thought a hollow jobs pitch would be just enough to get to 270 over a beloved incumbent.  They were wrong.

Who is the moderate wing of the Republican party?

Following the White House debacle of 2012, Party hacks waxed on the reasons for the party’s downfall.  None was more prolific than the architect of the White House debacle of 2008, John McCain’s very own campaign manager – Steve Schmidt.  This is the same Steve Schmidt, who ran a moderate presidential campaign that failed to receive 200 electoral votes.  Mr. Schmidt should be locked away in the annals of history as a failure convicted of political malpractice in 2008.  Instead, Mr. Schmidt has a talking head contract with MSNBC. 

Last week on television, Mr. Schmidt took pot shots at the Republican Party.  He called on republican leaders to “stand up” against the “extreme elements” of the party.  He handpicked Sarah Palin as Veep nominee…..  This guy – and there a lot of establishment types like him, is clueless.   After two presidential campaigns in a row where no real ideas were articulated by moderate candidates at odds with their base, he wants the losers to tell the people that won the House of Representatives to sit down and be quiet?  It’s stunning.  In what world do the losers dictate to the proven winners? 

David Frum, a former Bush lackey, also lashed out at the “right-wing media complex,” blaming talk radio and Fox News for …. Losses and “overselling” conservatism.  He said:

“What is happening now, and it’s disturbing, is that this complex has sold the idea that conservatives are the real majority in America. That claim has been exposed as false. But they are turning on the country and leading their viewers toward alienation and rejection.”


A Gallup survey from January 2012: 40% of Americans consider themselves conservative, 35% moderate and 21% liberal.  Gallup in May 2012: When asked whether voters were “total conservatives, total liberals or moderate on economic issues” 46% of Americans said conservative on economic issues compared with 32% moderate and 20% liberal.  And social issues?  38% totally conservative, 31% moderate, 28% liberal.  So………………there’s that. . . . . .

And full disclosure: I don’t know a lot about David Frum….  Just that, as a poor student in law school, I found an entire case of his books called “Comeback: Conservatism that can win” in a discount store for $1.99.  I bought one before I realized that it was a plan to win by taking economic issues and moderating them towards the middle.  Becoming green and environmentally friendly, becoming softly pro-choice, dropping out stand on marriage and altogether retreating on other issues we cared about.  It was actually a book on Rs becoming blue dog democrats in order to win.  So now you know where he is coming from. 

Now, Mr. Frum has made a fatal error.  He, like other “conservative” opinion makers who can’t sell books or get anyone except the other side to listen to him, makes the fatal mistake of believing that Rush Limbaugh (who he attacked) is the leader of the party by sheer force of personality.  It is his belief that ideas originate with Limbaugh and are then packaged up for the masses.  He fails to recognize that the reason these radio guys are so powerful isn’t because they have ideas that are catching on with the masses, but because the masses have beliefs and values that aren’t reflected by Boehner, Cantor and McConnell. 

These people tune in to be encouraged by someone who is trumpeting beliefs they already have and evaluating circumstances from the same worldview.  If there wasn’t a “silent majority” then no one would listen to Limbaugh.  Until people like David Brooks, David Frum, Steve Schmidt and Joe Scarborough come to understand this, they will continue to be the Juan Williams of the left.  They will be the quota-filling conservative for TV segments but never an opinion-maker.  (Ok, I actually do like Scarborough)

Moderate thinking loses.

Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush (post tax-raise), Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney all lost elections to the White House because they failed to sense the direction of the electorate.  They failed to articulate a viewpoint that stood in stark contrast to the other guy.  They came off as weak.  Ford went to war with conservatives of his own party.  Bush raised taxes after promising conservatives that he wouldn’t.  Dole and McCain made careers out of being mavericks that spit in the eye of the conservative wing of the party.  Romney positioned himself, out of nine primary nominees, as the most moderate alternative. 

Moderate ideas don’t win elections.  People want bold leaders.  And only far right or far left voters work the polls, make phone calls and knock on doors.  Moderates don’t volunteer to help win elections.  Voters want a Churchill and a Reagan.  What they want is someone who can strongly articulate and defend their political philosophy while promising that they are flexible enough to achieve it with bipartisan support.  Like, negative advertisements, voters may think they want a moderate willing to work with both sides, but in the end, they vote for the stronger and more ideological candidate.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not seeking a sequel to the Barry Goldwater campaign.  I’m not trying to run Christine O’Donnell for Senate.  We need a responsible candidate that doesn’t shoot their mouth off like Rick Santorum.  We need someone that has some knowledge, unlike Christine O’Donnell.  We need a candidate that has been in training for prime time, unlike Herman Cain.  We need a candidate that has at least won a statewide race and understands how to deal with a hostile media, unlike Michele Bachmann.  But that doesn’t mean we need a Massachusetts moderate or the “Maverick” of the Senate.  It’s time for the establishment to realize that you can turn off the far right as much as you can turn off independents.    

Conservatives win.

We need someone who leans conservative with some conservative credentials.  Reagan had his share of liberal policies, but he had been articulating conservatism in such a special and effective way that he won two elections on it.  He was responsible in his rhetoric.  He was sound in his policy proposals and he was ready for the media and the national spotlight.  Most importantly, he ran as a strong conservative that would work across the aisle to accomplish conservative goals.     

George W. Bush, ran as a conservative and on his ability to work with Ds in Texas.  He said that we’d be compassionate, but laid out a conservative agenda.

A winning candidate is neither far right nor right-of-center but in the center of conservative views.  He can’t be a new convert that doesn’t understand conservative language like Romney.  He can’t have a spotty record like McCain.  He has to be the guy that has capital to spend with moderates and conservatives – like Bush and Reagan.  These are the candidates that can win.

Romney had no capital built up with conservatives and by the time he made it to the national stage, it was too late to demonstrate his conservative credentials.  You run government effectively at the state level like Walker and Jindal and you bank enough capital to not have to prove your conservative credentials later on.  We already know you’re willing to go to the mat for the cause. 

Until we realize that you can win the independent vote (Romney did), and still lose the election if you don’t have your base behind you, we won’t be able to effectively present a winning theory of the case in a national election.  Despite demographics and missteps, if we had run an articulate, experienced conservative, that could have brought out Republicans, evangelicals, libertarians, conservative women as well as half of Hispanics and Asian-Americans, we would have won the 2012 election.   

So as Daniels, Christie, McDonnell, Santorum and Huntsman mount bids for 2016 we need to ask ourselves whether someone lacking in their conservative credentials actually has a chance of defeating Hillary Clinton.  We need to make sure that we don’t let the neo-cons try to run another candidate on a 20th century foreign policy.  We need someone that strikes the perfect pitch of conservatism because that person will be able to win over conservatives, independents and soft democrats.  In the past thirty years, every time the conservative in the primary battle has won the nomination, he has won the presidency and every time the moderate candidate has come out on top, we have lost it.  It’s time to start paying attention to the facts of presidential elections.