In the wake of stinging defeats in this year’s presidential and congressional elections, Republicans are now engaged in the difficult work of finding the way forward. Their mission is simple, but not easy: To rebuild their party’s brand by reworking and re-presenting its principles in a way that retains the indispensable – a commitment to liberty and justice for all – while developing fresh ideas, and fresh faces to articulate them. A painful but necessary part of the process also requires Republicans to identify and correct mistaken assumptions operative in the 2008 presidential campaign.
From the McCain campaign, it is possible to draw solid conclusions about what doesn’t work for Republicans. In the spirit of learning from the past to avoid repeating it, it’s worth reviewing some of the lessons of 2008.
1. It is impossible for any Republican presidential candidate to garner favorable mainstream media coverage, so long as s/he represents the more socially conservative electoral choice.
Certainly, the media’s swooning adoration of Barack Obama was unprecedented, and may in part have been attributable to the historic nature of his candidacy. But given that John McCain was once the most popular Republican with the press (and even jokingly referred to journalists as his “base”), he might reasonably have expected something more than the unremittingly hostile coverage that the mainstream media served up – even as his opponent enjoyed a largely free ride.
But here’s the fact: So long as Republicans represent the party of social conservatism, the press will always favor their opponents. John McCain’s popularity peaked when he was a competitor to (or thorn in the side of) the more socially conservative George W. Bush. Even this year, The New York Times’ primary endorsement of McCain represented nothing more than an effort to support him over the more vocally conservative Mitt Romney. As soon as McCain won the nomination – and became by default the most socially conservative choice for president – The New York Times unloaded all over him, bookending his campaign with a shoddily researched report on his alleged affair with a lobbyist and an ugly, deeply personal attack piece on his wife.
Going forward, Republicans must find a way to overcome the press bias favoring the more socially liberal candidate. Strategies for reaching over the heads of the mainstream media – whether by establishing an internet presence for the GOP, working more closely with talk radio, or crafting strategies to offer candidate interviews or breaking news to favorable (or at least fair) news outlets – must be among the party’s first order of business.