When it comes to fundraising, organization and ground game, we Republicans got whipped.
Now, Republicans may criticize Sen. Barack Obama for breaking his promise to accept public funding and play by the established rules, but that doesn’t take us too far. We shouldn’t kid ourselves: Democrats breaking this precedent had nothing to do with their campaign-finance principles, and everything to do with the fact they could afford to. Mr. McCain could never have competed this fall without the federal funds and, in the end, Mr. Obama simply smothered McCain, outspending him in battleground states by three-to-one, with plenty left over to compete in even Republican-leaning areas.
For years, Republicans outworked Democrats at the polls. Democrats would have opulent fund-raisers with celebrities and would bask in the glow of a lapdog media. Republicans would go out on Election Day and beat them on the ground game. Their guys wrote checks; our guys wrote letters to the editor. They knocked our values; we knocked on doors. They spoke for the people; we actually got out and spoke with the people. Conservative organizations outside the official party apparatus understood their role in a large coalition: organize, energize, and mobilize. And then we won.
Victory is always the hardest thing for a successful political coalition. Economic, social and foreign-policy conservatives unite easily when brought together in opposition to tax-and-spend, pro-abortion, dovish liberals in power. After more than a decade in control of Congress and eight years in the White House, the coalition has worn thin. Conservatives of each of these stripes will always have some complaint to make against the Republican Party. But as odd as it sounds, we need not let our past victories continue to divide us.
Meanwhile, liberals of every sort are in a frenzy to get back into power, and especially to wrest the White House back from President Bush, who liberals have tried to peg as an illegitimate president all along. Democrats have not missed this golden opportunity to unite.
Liberalism’s new and impressive network of organizations — especially fund-raising, grassroots mobilization, and communications — has left in the dust anything conservatives have ever put together. Organizations like America Votes and ACORN are so closely tied to Democrat politics that they might as well be arms of the party apparatus. The George Soros-funded Shadow Party of organizations run by former Clinton administration officials and liberal leaders — the Center for American Progress, the Thunder Road Group, MoveOn.org, Media Matters, etc. — has created a second left-leaning party free from restrictions imposed by official regulations — including McCain-Feingold.
This liberal infrastructure, which now dwarfs conservatism’s in size, scope, and sophistication, will be setting and helping to impose the national agenda for the coming years. The time has come for conservatives to wake up and smell the 21st century.
American politics as we know it ended the day Mr. Obama refused public funds for his presidential bid and unleashed a billion-dollar political giant. National campaigns will now operate not as individual operations designed to elect a single man, but as a cohesive, all-encompassing movement, well funded and certainly prepared for a political coup. In 2012, Mr. Obama — whether as an incumbent or a seasoned veteran challenger — will no doubt raise more than $1 billion for his campaign conglomerate. And that’s not wrong. It’s impressive — and intimidating.
Between now and then, Republicans must come to terms with their organizational shortcomings and finally become again the kind of dynamic political party that won stirring victories in 1994 and 2000. Our party must expand its organization to include our coalition groups in the ways Democrats have with theirs. The Coalition for a Conservative Majority, an organization I helped start in 2006, is trying to pull conservative organizations back together after too many years of internecine squabbling. Only under conservative government will groups like the National Rifle Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Right to Life Committee receive a fair hearing of their views; it’s time they started working together.
Conservatism’s leading donors must look beyond contributing only to traditional channels like the RNC or campaign committees, and open up to also funding outside organizations that can do what the Democrats’ Shadow Party is already doing. New resources must be tapped, and just as importantly, coordinated.
And our leaders — in Congress and in the states — must develop and communicate a strong, conservative agenda of reform around which conservatives of all stripes can rally with a well-organized political communication strategy.
Luckily, we are still a center-right nation. We still favor conservative approaches to taxes, spending, regulation, foreign policy and traditional values. Americans have never lost their faith in conservatism. We need now a new, 21st-century political coalition to remind them of that fact, and to restore its faith in actual conservatives.
Former Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, served as House majority leader.