Infighting continued amongst conservatives and Republicans this week. Karl Rove angered Tea Partiers by implying they don’t know how to pick candidates. Majority Leader Eric Cantor told anyone who would listen Republicans need to learn to craft their message better for a broader audience. Every conservative group and politician is scrambling to find a way to appeal to various groups of Americans in a way that will “work” to win them votes. It reeks of desperation…and it’s nothing new.
After every election loss by Republicans in the last 20 years, the media has declared them dead, particularly the conservative wing of the party. It’s a kabuki dance rarely repeated after a loss by Democrats. There was no media conversation about messaging issues or demographic problems in 1994 like there was in 1992. The media didn’t question how John Kerry lost in 2004, and they blamed Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000 on cheating by the courts.
When Democrats lose, it’s a fluke or the result of gerrymandering or other circumstances beyond their control. When Republicans lose it’s proof Americans are done forever with their way of thinking. It’s total rejection of their agenda – wishful thinking on behalf of Democrats projected through the megaphone of their fellow travellers in the media.
But poll after poll shows that, on the issues, this is a center-right nation.
So what’s the issue? Why would a country leaning to the right vote for someone like President Obama, who clearly camps on the left bank of the spectrum? Or, worse yet, why would so many right-leaning Americans stay home, not vote and leave their country to the antithesis of what they believe? The answer is less complicated than people who earn money telling you how complicated it is would have you believe.
When Ronald Reagan won in 1980, the media was just as corrupt and in the tank for Democrats. They were no more open to the conservative message than they are now. And they were the only pathway to the public – there was no internet, no cable news.
But Reagan did things few have done since him – he talked over, around, past the media, directly to the people. He didn’t do so in an apologetic way. He didn’t speak like a dog with a tail between his legs. He was clear, confident and worried more about the clarity of what he was saying than the way it would be portrayed by the media. He knew the media wasn’t going to like him, no matter how he articulated his beliefs, no matter how friendly he was to them (and he was friendly to them).
Reagan laid out a clear vision for the nation without concern for the spin the media megaphone would try to put on it. He trusted the voters. More than that, he trusted himself. He believed in his message and delivered it with confidence. Voters responded the way voters always respond to a clear, confident vision.
Since Reagan, Republicans have spent more of their time trying to be liked by the media than trying to show voters a vision for the future, with one notable exception. In 1994, New Gingrich laid out a solid, unapologetic vision for American in the Contract with America. Democrats and the media elite attacked it relentlessly, referring to it as the “Contract ON America.” But voters, as they always do when presented with a clear, strong choice, saw through the smears and handed Republicans their greatest victory to that time.
The Republican victory in 2000 was as much about a rejection of Al Gore and the Clinton years as it was an embrace of a watered-down version of conservatism. The victory in 2010 was as much a rejection of the liberal agenda as is was anything else. The losses in 2008 and 2012 were the antithesis of what happened in 1980. The Republican candidates, while likable enough, never offered a confident, conservative vision. In the absence of an alternative, or when offered a half-hearted alternative, voters always will side with confidence. And if there’s one thing Barack Obama offers, it’s confidence.
Mitt Romney was somewhat conservative, but he also seemed embarrassed by his success. He allowed Democrats to make his biography, which should have been his source of confidence and greatest asset, into an Achilles heel. Just as importantly, although personally warm and engaging in a small setting, he was one of the least-compelling speakers I’ve ever heard.
Say what you will about Barack Obama, when he’s reading a teleprompter he’s controlling the audience. Even if you disagree with what he’s saying and where he wants to lead the country, there’s no ambiguity about the fact he wants to lead it. In the magnetism column, Republicans currently have no equal.
It’s ironic Eric Cantor is out giving speeches about the importance of messaging considering just how uncompelling a speaker he is. You can have the greatest message in the world, but you’d be better off writing it down than having it delivered by someone with the charisma of a dead fish. Current Republican leadership, including Cantor, Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are yesterday’s catch. And that’s being generous in the charisma department.
As important as what you say is how you say it. If Winston Churchill had the charm and quick wittedness of the current crop of Republican leadership, history would not remember him because it never would have gotten to know him in the first place.
As so-called leaders perform an autopsy on the 2012 election, they’re really fighting each other for a bigger piece of what ultimately boils down to the purse-strings and the taste of power that brings. Money will be spent and calories will be burnt all in a public fight over what a doctor of pediatric neurosurgery showed the world – that a simple, honest and heartfelt message of self-reliance, or conservatism to put it simply, can satiate the hunger millions of Americans feel.
Of course, it probably will be ignored…because there’s no money in it.
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