Republicans don't care.
Or at least that's the perception of us. President Barack Obama's convincing re-election in November despite a climate of high unemployment, stagnant economic growth and waning American influence around the globe has caused a great deal of soul-searching for the Republican Party.
One of the conclusions some of us have come to is that our problem is not the message or the messengers but our own detachment from the needs of struggling working families and our lack of vision and policies that address them.
I was struck reading a recent article in which our presidential nominee, after his loss and after volunteering at a local homeless shelter, said, "(The people there) are used to being ignored, I guess -- mostly by people like me."
I think this is a word picture for Republican leaders in general. What do we need to do to reposition the party, connect with Americans and address what Peggy Noonan so astutely observed -- that it's not that "they" don't like us but that "they" don't think we like them?
This week, conservatives will gather at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington and begin the complex process of developing a bold conservative vision that will resonate with all Americans.
My own experience during the 2012 campaign has shaped my view on the way forward. Throughout the campaign, I kept in mind my family and the coal country we came from, the needs of the people I grew up with on VA grounds and the inner city of Philadelphia I represented for 12 years.
I tried to provide a vision for hardworking families I came across during my campaign. Middle America is hurting. But I didn't always keep this in mind in a personal way. I remember being chastised by my staff when, during the second South Carolina debate, none of us expressed sympathy toward the unemployed woman who asked us how we would address her health insurance needs. We talked policy, but did we really care about her?
I believe that the conservative approach that focuses on family, community, the private sector and a limited role of government provides the better framework to develop policies that will address the realities of millions of struggling families. But we have to be much more intentional in applying them.
Sure, extending unemployment benefits to two years may seem compassionate, but after two years, individuals are much less employable, and their futures are less bright. Instead of ideas that focus on strengthening families and communities, addressing the appalling conditions in our public schools or creating a business environment that attracts new enterprises and job creation, the president has focused on climate change, gay marriage and gun control.
The way forward is getting back to our basic principles -- but applied to the challenges we face today. We must not be the party of plutocrats, country clubbers and corporate interests. We must focus on ways to deliver our vision for hope and opportunity for working Americans. Here's what I mean:
We must represent and create opportunity for all Americans -- but especially struggling families yearning for a secure future, single moms who face tremendous challenges and immigrant families who must work doubly hard to get ahead in this world.
We must be the champions for working taxpayers and families and promote policies focused on real health care choices and building assets through savings incentives, homeownership and expanded job opportunities through manufacturing incentives.
We must continue to be proponents of fundamental human rights and human dignity by affirming the right to life for the unborn, disabled and aging, as well as protecting freedom of conscience and religion and freedom of speech and association.
We must be advocates for vulnerable at-risk children through programs that strengthen marriage, fatherhood, vibrant supportive communities, quality health care and educational options.
We must empower parents with real educational options for their children, options that promote excellence and opportunity.
We must be advocates for local problem-solving efforts and organizations and social entrepreneurs rather than federal prescriptions and mandates to every challenge.
We must reduce poverty and help struggling families through faith-based, civic and local and state partnerships. Our vision is not to put people on food stamps and Medicaid but to provide a path to a better future.
We haven't shown America that we have the tools to put the rungs back on the opportunity ladder -- the ladder up -- to achieve the American dream. That must change.
I'm not convinced we can rely on the establishment of the Republican Party or today's elected leaders in Congress to get us back. And it's not about moving to the left; it's about appealing to working Americans with a vision that represents opportunity and a better life and offering real solutions to their problems.
Former Senator Rick Santorum is the author of It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. He is writing a second book on the “Gathering Storm of the 21st Century” – the war against a radical, Islamic fascist enemy and its growing alliances around the world.
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