The Republican Party is afflicted by two principal ailments, a hangover from the presidency of George W. Bush and a longing for Ronald Reagan.
Complicating matters is our own misdiagnosis. It is time for us to recognize that the electorate has changed. We cannot continue to think that the United States is a center-right nation. The 2008 election demonstrated that this is no longer true, at least in an electoral sense. Republicans held some form of power from 1995 to 2009. We can confidently say that the legacy of this era will be great policy achievements: lower taxes, a reformed welfare system, a more secure world and a more accountable educational system.
In the 2006 and 2008 elections, however, Republican candidates failed to present a clear vision for governing. With corruption, runaway spending, Iraq and an historic economic crisis, how did we expect to lead government without a compelling vision for the future? When voters asked, “What have you done for me lately?,” all we had to say was a meek, “Not much.”
In this past election, our only real message from Republicans in Congress was “Drill, Baby Drill.” This was great policy but it slipped away as soon as Democrats realized they could turn it aside by caving. Our eight presidential aspirants had no new vision to offer American voters, either.
Consequently, many politicians looked backward, toward the leadership of President Ronald Reagan. During the primary campaign, it was hard not to find a candidate who was proud of marching as a foot soldier in Reagan’s Army. Today, candidates for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee tout their allegiance to his memory. Trying to replicate Reagan’s clearheaded, coherent conservatism would seem to make sense. His presidency was a great time for America, the world and our party. To this day each still bears the stamp of his leadership.
But as our candidates fumbled over themselves to lay claim to being the next Ronald Reagan, it is clear that Reagan’s greatness was borne in the certainty of his own vision and the rightness of it. He did not lay claim to being the reincarnation of anyone. More critically, voters want to look forward. They want prescriptions for tomorrow, not eulogies to the past.
The intellectual capital of our party has been depleted by years in power and, in Congress, an all-consuming focus on self-preservation. The effort of our candidates to recast themselves as Reagan speaks more to a deficit of new ideas and is a reflection of voters’ misgivings about President Bush.
Voters in 2008 did not reject a clear GOP vision of the future. No vision was presented. Instead, they cast judgment on the last four years of the Bush administration and the campaign waged by John McCain, who didn’t have much to offer on the main concerns of the day.
The conventional wisdom in our party is that after two drubbings, voters are still center-right. On an ideological scale this might be true. But that is not translating into votes. We should not console ourselves by saying that the people are still with us. They are not.
The GOP has experienced real losses in voter affiliation over the last four years to the benefit of independent and Democrat affiliation. And on voting preference, Independents have leaned strongly Democrat for some time. The Obama campaign used this structural change in the electorate to advantage in 2008, and don’t seem to have forgotten those lessons as they enter office.
We should be clear headed about this: The voters are behaviorally more centrist (and may be center-left) than they were four years ago. This is Obama’s opportunity and our trouble. This change in voter affiliation provides President-elect Obama the opportunity to govern from the middle. If he stays focused on this electorate, he can create a formidable group of voters that stretches from the left to the center. Much like the “Reagan Democrats” of 1984, there might well be “Obama Republicans” in 2012, if there aren’t already. What do we think happened, after all, in places like Indiana and North Carolina? More of this would create a real roadblock for our candidate in the next presidential contest.
Tony Blair was a gifted leader in the United Kingdom, and the opposition Tories bumbled about without much to say for more than a decade. This combined to give New Labor a long lease on office. Obama is in a position to craft a similar circumstance for the Democrats. If we cannot find our own voice, we will be where the Conservatives have been until recently, going up against something with nothing.
Fighting for the center of the electorate does not require the GOP to become a “centrist” party. Indeed, centrism is a meaningless term in practical politics. Thankfully, there are many issues where the GOP and centrist voters agree. For example: reducing America’s reliance on foreign oil; reforming our health care system to increase quality and make it more affordable; increasing the ability of Americans to save and invest tax-free; protecting America from the threat of terrorism; and most important, a smaller, more efficient government that actually provides what Americans need now and eliminates programs and spending from bygone eras. These voters share our beliefs in a strong America that supports the institution of family and respects the rights of the individual. We need to keep these issues in focus as we confront President Obama.
We will be given opportunities by the other side. Indeed, Congress may overreach in an attempt to turn liberal fantasies into reality, but that will not provide us with an agenda. And the Obama team will strive at the same time, with more resources than they have ever had, to solidify the center of the electorate. Therefore, we must be even more dedicated in our own pursuit if we are to overcome the advantages of the new Democrat Party.
I hate to acknowledge this, but the presidency of George W. Bush is regarded by many voters as my party’s Jimmy Carter moment. But we should keep in mind that Ronald Reagan isn’t coming back. If we want to bottle the magic of the past, these are the lessons we should take from Ronald Reagan: certainty in our core beliefs and an aspiring vision of America’s future that translates to the average voter. We will also need diligence in the pursuit of that vision. To go forward from this point, we will need our own game plan to get back to that shining city on a hill.
Terry Nelson is a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, founder of the Crosslink Strategy Group, served as political director for the Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign, and is former executive director of political operations at the Republican National Committee.