August 20, 2009

One Version of a Conservative Roadmap - Part 2

In a recent article in Commentary Magazine, authors Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson wrote about the path to Republican revival. I had some previous comments about it with respect to how the Republican party representation in the House, Senate and White house has gotten to such a sorry state as it is in today. But their article goes on to focus on the more important issue of how the GOP can work it's way back from the wilderness. That, in my opinion, the most important thrust of the article. The remedies proposed by Wehner and Gerson have a dual focus. They concentrate on WHO to win demographically (improve vote share) and WHAT platforms to espouse in order to do so. By combining these two focal points, they may be avoiding falling into the classical conservative trap - have the right ideas and the votes will come. If only it were that simple, Obama would not be President, and his main opponent in the election would not have been John McCain, but a more conservative Republican. Such is clearly, and sadly, not the case.

As I argued, shortly after the election, the party is not short on quality ideas (the WHAT) but rather, what the party lacks is the methodologies (the HOW) to get those ideas heard, understood and bought into by the previously unconvinced or unconcerned.

(See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for examples).

From my personal perspective, Wehner and Gerson's article (albeit only a preview version so far), which concentrates on the WHAT and the WHO is nearly a complete analysis of the road ahead for the Republican party. I'd strongly advocate that any approach must also concentrate on the HOW. Nevertheless the article provides some good insights and a wonderful opportunity to re-iterate my most crucial argument to the Republican party, namely that they have to re-think the process. In the weeks and months after the election, the focus was on conservatism versus moderates within the party. That was a natural reaction to the defeat at the hands of someone we figured based on policy positions, was unelectable. But that intra-party fight and focus was wrong. We lost, we needed to focus on what we did wrong. It wasn't the ideas, it was the disconnect with voters across the political spectrum.

How do we address that disconnect? With the following;

1) Quality Candidates, with indisputable sincerity [WHAT]
2) Distilled ideas into a simple to understand message i.e. clarity [WHAT]
3) Finding cheaper, smarter, more effective ways to communicate that message [HOW and WHO]
4) Repeating that message with assembly-line consistency in a multi-channel environment from multiple sources. In other words sing with one voice, consistently and repeatedly [HOW]

Here' I"ll depart from simply analyzing the Wehner/Gerson article and simply reference it with respect to alignment with my views on the above four points.

Quality Candidates

Quality is a nebulous term. What constitutes quality can be seen differently from one person to the next. However, since Republicans are held to a higher ethical standard than the Barney Franks and Christopher Dodds of the Democrat party, certain immutable rules must be observed. Republican candidates for office, must be resolute in their desire to avoid corruption, root out corruption, and oppose corruption at every turn. How you determine that at face value is not clear. If it were, Democrat Elliot Spitzer would have not campaigned and won on an anti-corruption platform and still have been involved with prostitution personally. And Mark Sanford would not have been so highly regarded as a Republican prospect for the Presidency in 2012. Quality means embodying the values you espouse.

Quality also includes other attributes. Quality means having vision and having good ideas. Quality means being well versed in foreign and domestic issues. Quality means being a good communicator, or a great one. Quality means having charisma and the ability to connect with people directly or through various media such as television and radio. Quality means understanding the needs of America and Americans and having the drive to tackle the issues proactively rather than reactively. Quality also means the ability to promote the conservative agenda but not at the expense of being overly partisan (like President Obama). Conversely staying entirely out of partisan matters is ideal either because it can lead to a complete disconnect with Americans (like President Bush, who often seemed to be in hiding).

That's a lot to ask of a candidate. Such a diverse set of qualities exist in very, very few people. And likely someone with all those attributes is otherwise occupied in something more fruitful than government. So add to all of those attributes, patriotism and a sense of national duty. Every candidate for Congress Senate and the Presidency cannot have all of those attributes. However, they should possess a majority of them to a great degree, and the others to some degree.

When conservatives envision their ideal candidate, whether it be a Mitt Romney, a Sarah Palin, a Tim Pawlenty, or someone else, they are embracing a particular attribute or set of attributes they view as most important and believe that candidate best embodies.

Wehner and Gerson have their own take;
As it happens, the GOP has successful reformers to whom it can look to and learn from, including popular governors or former governors like Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal, and Jeb Bush. Daniels’s health-care plan in Indiana facilitated the transfer of money previously consigned to Medicaid into individual health-savings accounts and simultaneously extended coverage to more than 130,000 uninsured individuals. In a state carried by Obama last year, Daniels won re-election by 18 points. The Daniels plan is worth emulating on its own merits. Politically, it is worth studying as a case history in what the country cries out for: leadership dedicated to fixing what can be fixed at a cost that can be afforded and in a spirit of inclusiveness untainted by class resentment and a manipulated antipathy toward “the rich.”
They focus on vision, initiative, and they hint at avoiding partisanship. That's their take.

A simple understandable message

The message that will connect with voters has to be clear, concise and simple to understand. The wrong approach to take is to emulate the Obama approach - vagueness. It worked for him in 2008, but his believers are turning to skeptics. Why? Because vagueness breeds an internalization of what the candidate means. The internalization is to see the candidate in the best or worst possible light. What you get after the fact, is the stark reality of how the candidate really governs. The issue is, Obama used up the tactic. Because of the disillusionment over his real governing style, it can't be used again because people will demand more up front accountability. Simply put, that same tactic won't work for at least another 20 years.

As to the details of what constitutes the message, that's an entirely separate conversation. Wehner and Gerson drift into policy matters in this regard, but it is useful in illustrating what areas might be important in terms of what the simple message needs to be distilled from. The first platform point is the economy. This will never be far from top position for the foreseeable future. For the first time in a generation a steep recession hit. There's an indelible impact on the psyche of Americans that whatever else goes on in public policy, the economy needs to be made unshakable. It can't be, recessions are natural. What can be fixed and should be focused on is the governments role in (i) Ensuring stability without going control-freak on the country and (ii) ensuring that the government is not part of the problem as far as the economy goes (spending). In other words stay out of the way.
The public’s chief worry about Obama centers, naturally, on the economy. Specifically, the worry is over government spending, and it is reflected in the results of a series of state referenda; even in such a deeply blue state as California, citizens by huge margins have voted down a spate of spending propositions. This year’s federal expenditures will rise to more than 28 percent of GDP, a level exceeded only at the height of World War II; the deficit for the fiscal year is projected at more than $1.8 trillion. Worse, instead of paring down ambitions in the face of such runaway figures, the Obama administration has undertaken a recklessly expensive domestic agenda, including an attempt to nationalize American health care.

So staggering is the scope of this effort to increase the federal government’s size, reach, and spending that not a few Democrats themselves have had to warn of the consequences of massive miscalculation and hubris. Nationally, according to a June New York Times–CBS poll, voters by a 2-1 margin do not believe Obama has developed a clear plan for dealing with the deficit, and a majority reject the president’s plan to stimulate the economy at the cost of higher deficits.
Another topic they focus on is national defense. While there's an inherent understanding of this among conservatives, it needs to be explained again for those disconnected from the Cold Ware era by age or time. As Wehner and Gerson point out.
Americans have an interest in liberty and human rights because they are Americans—and because America’s safety is served by the hope and health of others...Among younger Americans focused on global issues like genocide, poverty, women’s rights, religious liberty, malaria, and HIV/AIDS, it can resonate loudly.
Conservatives already get it. You can make arguments either way about the merits of being proactive a la the Bush doctrine, but liberty requires defending. Always. The point that the authors make is a valid one - for those not attuned to the importance of national defense, you can put the argument in other terms. This might garner some support among those younger voters. The platform is important, I don't believe it needs to be the centerpiece, in terms of resonating with Americans. Not at this time, not unless it's coupled with economic strength as part of a 'strong America' message. Look at how Iraq and Afghanistan are ancillary to the news cycle now. Of course it's because the Democrats won. You'd think in an election cycle the "remember the Bush years" argument with respect to war might raise it's ugly head. But look, how much has course actually changed under Obama? The argument will ring hollow to the youth demographic in two to three years. The Democrats would be foolish to play that card if Afghanistan is still ongoing and Iraq still has or has recently lost any and all American soldiers.

A more tangible an much needed message point is simplification. The government doesn't need to be stripped bare and the private sector doesn't need to be completely de-regulated. That's a mis-characterization of events, but should be painted as a mis-characterization of Republican goals. The real goal, and the commensurate message should be that government needs to be simplified and made more efficient. Rules governing the private sector need to do the same. It's not about making it easier to cheat, it's about reducing bureaucracy and making it easier for business and the American people to deal with government. The government needs to be responsive and flexible, not bureaucratic and oppressively cumbersome. How does that serve the people? This notion can apply to every aspect of government because it's a universal truth. On Twitter people have argued that any alternatives the GOP proposes to health care should not be 1000 pages, it should be 10 pages. The Democrats are arming conservatives with examples of how the change that came to Washington was a bigger version of more of the same.

The eloquent argument the authors put together here is self evident in it's logic:
Republicans will also have to put forth a comprehensive reform agenda. There is no shortage of issues at the federal level: converting the labyrinthine U.S. tax code into something far less burdensome and far more family-friendly; repairing a budget process that is broken, corrupt, and inefficient; developing a modern-day regulatory system in the aftermath of the collapse of our financial institutions; remaking a tort system that imposes wholly unnecessary upward pressure on the costs of health care; insisting that foreign-aid expenditures are both generous and outcome-oriented; and so forth.

Take as an example education, which is, for most Americans, an essential element of the common good and a primary task of government. Reform of our dismally ineffective system of public education was begun in the Bush years, based on the understanding that broad improvement depended on regularly testing students in the basics of reading and math and imposing consequences on schools unable or unwilling to raise performance levels. The natural next step in the process would be to bring accountability to the teaching profession itself, by paying teachers not just for showing up but for excelling. Effective reform means rewarding superior teachers through merit pay and encouraging poor teachers to seek employment elsewhere. Certification procedures need to be changed to attract qualified instructors now barred from teaching by the self-dealing rules of the teachers’ unions. Public charter schools need to be supported at every turn. Priority needs to be given to high-quality research and data collection, the indispensable requirements for meaningful reform.

With education, as with banks and auto companies, the Obama administration seems bent on shoring up failure. Here is where Republican officeholders, at every level of government and in every area of public policy, could provide a contrast: by speaking out for clear performance standards, by focusing on good results rather than on good intentions, and by recruiting strong minds in the service of what works and can be shown to work.

If education is one critical arena for demonstrating contrast between the parties’ respective approaches, another central arena is health care. More than anything else the new administration has attempted, ObamaCare would fundamentally alter for the worse the government’s relationship to the polity and the economy. It would entail imposing cost controls through the inevitable rationing of medical care itself, thus putting the state in charge of life-and-death decisions. By effectively nationalizing the health-care system, it would create universal dependency on the federal bureaucracy (a body that, whatever its other virtues, has not been hitherto known for medical expertise, let alone for signal powers of human empathy) while hugely amplifying the worst deficiencies of Medicare and running up catastrophic debt. Effective Republican opposition could vividly point out these dangers while offering alternatives that would produce far better results, empowering individuals to purchase their own health insurance and control their own health care while maintaining the American edge in medical research and innovation.
Cheaper, Smarter Communication

This point focuses on the how to communicate but also to whom. Since I've dealt with the former in the past (see the links above for details), I will concentrate on the who portion for now. The clearest most obvious factor in winning in 2012 and beyond is that the GOP must be more connected morally and spiritually to the Hispanic community. That community is THE must win battleground of the future because of it's explosive demographic growth. This is the electoral battle of the next 30 years. Historic results in the demographic are unimportant. The growth of the Hispanic community has been so rapid, that previous demographic share is far less important than are they a winnable segment for the GOP? Wehner and Gerson see that very clearly. They talk about it more than once;
Nor are the demographic advantages now enjoyed by the Democrats necessarily immovable. Sustaining Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” may prove difficult, particularly among the key cohort of Hispanics. Republicans, following the example set by George W. Bush, could regain support among members of this large and variegated group. Pulling in the GOP’s favor are the growth among many Hispanics of Protestant evangelicalism (a factor that helped both Bush and McCain) and the steady progress of Hispanic assimilation. Younger voters will not blame George W. Bush forever if they find themselves unable to find work at decent wages, especially as they begin to think of beginning families.
and later;
Then there is the key question of immigration. No national party can hope to succeed in the long run without broad support among immigrants and the children of immigrants—particularly, these days, Hispanics and Asian Americans. Immigrants, like other Americans, hold a variety of views on American immigration law and on how it has been applied. But uniformly they resent being made into debating foils. Republican leaders have a positive duty to confront careless rhetoric and to appeal consistently to new Americans, welcoming their overwhelmingly positive contributions to the American economy and American values. During the last presidential primary season, most Republican candidates, to their party’s cost, were no-shows at Hispanic forums.

But the Republican appeal to immigrants is fundamentally different from the ethnic politics often practiced by Democrats who attempt to play on grievances rather than appeal to common values. To succeed, the Republican argument requires communicating that growing ethnic diversity does not undermine but rather strengthens the American ideal. But an even more powerful argument lies in the appeal to social mobility: the idea that, in America, economic and social dynamism is what offers striving individuals the prospect of success and wealth.

...with an eye toward immigrants and the poor, the GOP would be wise to strengthen its reputation as the party of community and order. Republican rhetoric can sound intensely individualistic, as if to suggest that once government impediments were cleared away, all persons and all families would thrive as a matter of course. Individual freedom is indeed central to conservatism but so is the belief that individual freedom is given purpose and direction in the context of strong communities. It is a staple of conservatism that strong social bonds are essential to human flourishing.
Republicans should take a lesson from Democrats who came out to town halls to take their beatings - don't hide. Engage. In a different forum the audience might be more willing to at least listen. How do you expect to win a demographic by being a no-show at a community forum? The authors' last point above is a critical evaluation of conservative understanding of how to reach out to these voters, who DO have many commonalities with conservatives yet continue to vote Democratic. The message, at least in this community must encompass community, not just individual focus. Do you remember how Obama co-opted the rhetoric of the middle? We can co-opt the rhetorical style of the left if it helps get our message out to communities that seem unreachable. Conservative social outlook often is too narrow and viewed as Christian right. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is a segment of America, not the entire pie chart. The message of what conservatism can do needs to be tailored to the specific community, whether that is Hispanics, Christian right, African American, young adults. There is a commonality in conservative values to some degree among each of these demographics. The message should not be a one-size fits all message.
In this respect, Republicans would be well advised here to borrow a page from David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith in their revival of the British Conservative party. These leaders have emphasized a range of issues that directly influence the quality of life in community: homelessness, addiction, prison reform, family breakdown, long-term unemployment. As yet, Republicans have no comparable agenda to address such issues of social justice from a conservative perspective. This, as we noted earlier, may be partly owing to the curse of previous success, which has allowed the issue of social justice to be seized by Democrats. But, to invoke a historical reference, the GOP must be the party of both Adam Smiths: the free-market champion who wrote The Wealth of Nations and the moral philosopher who authored The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Like Smith in the 18th century, the party of the 21st century must uphold the paramount virtues of freedom and the “invisible hand” and the no less paramount truth that the free life is nurtured and sustained in community.
Wehner and Gerson focus lastly on civility and tone and the point to focus on the prupose and usefulness of government. for a society currently steeped waist deep in government hyeractivity, this needs to be articulated. Conservatives do not hate government, they see it's role differently than do big government liberals. Limited yes, but still with a purpose.
Running through this account of domestic and national-security issues is an attitude toward public life and toward public discourse. Tone and bearing are terribly undervalued commodities in American politics. On the whole, people drawn to a party like to feel that those representing the party are both amiable and peaceable. This hardly precludes conviction and tough-mindedness when it comes to articulating policy. Democracy was designed for disagreement, and the proper role of an opposition party is to oppose. But anger, personal attack, and extreme language do nothing to expand the appeal of a party in trouble.

...Running through this analysis is, as well, an attitude toward government. No party founded by Abraham Lincoln—a president who advocated internal improvements while being simultaneously prepared to maintain the Union by force—can consider itself simply and purely antigovernment.
Reagan's message was timeless. But the way he said it suited his time. Today, a different vocabulary is required. And a different tone. The approach conservatives should consider is a flow through message; Obama talked of hope and change. But what change did he bring? And at what cost, has he delivered? We believe smarter is better, and that simpler solutions are less prone to failure or abuse. Here are our ideas. Please Listen. Question them. Question us. Ours is a party of ideas and a party of debate and constant change.

That's no so hard to articulate as an introduction is it? And in many parts of America today, an introduction to the Republican party and to conservatism, is precisely what's needed. After that, then the drumbeat of the message over and over and over can begin. We're just not there yet, but let's not put the cart before the horse.

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