Last weekend at the Defending the American Dream Summit, I had the opportunity to talk behind-the-scenes with some Republican staffers. During our back-and-forth exchanges, here are some of the things I told them that I thought their bosses should understand:
1) It's going to take time to re-establish trust: During the Bush years a lot of conservatives simply lost confidence that Republicans in D.C. were on our side. Sure, you can point to plenty of things that Republicans did that conservatives agree with, but they also sold us down the river on some issues near-and-dear to a lot of hearts on the Right.
That's why so many conservatives are still very tough on Republicans in Congress: we don't trust them. Someone like Jim DeMint or Tom Coburn? Conservatives may cut them some slack when they do something we disagree with because we know their hearts are in the right place. The same can't be said for the Senate leadership -- yet. Regaining the base's trust is tough, but it can be done with enough time and consistent effort.
The GOP's performance in Congress has improved immeasurably since Obama came into office, but conservatives need to believe it's real. What we don't want is more talk about "conservative principles" from people who are going to kick us under the bus five minutes after they get back into power.
2) Stop running from conservatives: One of the biggest differences between the Democrats and the GOP is that the Dems have worked to legitimize their base. They may not be willing to go down with the ship, but they don't push their effective activists into oncoming traffic unless they feel like there's no other choice. Additionally, Democrats give more access, help, and information to their new media allies in a month than the Republicans have done in our lifetimes.
On the other hand, with Republicans, at every given moment you feel as if you're an out-of-context quote away from being disowned by the entire Republican establishment. Newsflash: unless it's a really extreme case, no Republican politician should be on TV denouncing conservative talk radio hosts or bloggers. It's fine to let people know where you stand, but you don't have to push your own guys off on an ice floe to do it.
You often hear people complain that the Right doesn't do as much reporting as the Left. Well, unlike the Left, we don't have the money to do it with. Meanwhile, there are sparsely read think tank blogs, print magazines, pointless ad campaigns for losing candidates, and other minimally useful endeavors soaking up tens of millions of dollars that could utterly transform the new media landscape on the Right. There are a lot of people starting to talk about this behind-the-scenes and we may be on the cusp of seeing something start to happen in this area. Faster, please!
4) Fight!: One of the reasons Joe Wilson created such a seismic reaction on the Right is because the GOP usually comes off like such a bunch of wimps. While Republicans in Congress do deserve a lot of credit for hanging together and voting against Obama's agenda, there's a missing sense of urgency.
The Democrats are methodically destroying the future of this country. They're running up an astronomical debt, they're taking over huge segments of the economy, and they're going to annihilate the quality of medical care in this country with this health care bill. Meanwhile, most of the Republicans in Congress are playing pattycake and Senate "leaders" like Mitch McConnell are talking about how wonderful the bleeping TARP program turned out to be. There is a complete and utter disconnect between the gravity of the situation and what we're hearing from most Republican "leaders." Joe Wilson may have been rude, but at least there is a sense that he understands what's at stake.
5) The D.C. Bubble will smother you: That's not a put-down; it's just a statement of fact. I don't care how smart you are, the longer anyone, whether he is a politician, consultant, staffer, columnist, you-name-it, stays inside the Beltway, the more he loses touch with reality.
That's not to say that D.C. Republicans are off-target. They're right much more often than they're wrong. But, on some issues, the groupthink inside of D.C. makes them unable to see things that people who barely follow politics can articulate almost by feel.
Don't think you can just listen to a bunch of staffers and consultants and read the Washington Post and have a good understanding of what's going on. Get out of D.C., find some people who don't know who you are and don't care about politics. Then, ask them what they think about the hot issue of the day. Read some blogs -- and not just the posts, but go into the comments sections. Listen to some talk radio and pay attention not just to the hosts, but to the callers. Invite some bloggers and talk radio guys to just talk with you about the issues behind-the-scenes. Get their perspective on what's going on. They will respect you more for doing it and it will give you a whole new perspective on the political landscape.