Ever since Mitt Romney lost the presidential election, there's been a lot of talk about how the Republican Party needs to "rebrand" itself.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wants, among other things, for the GOP to stop being "the stupid party." Rep. Paul Ryan has concluded that the watchword for the Republican Party needs to be "prudence." Sen. Marco Rubio is the front man for the most tangible aspect of the rebranding effort: getting on the right side of the immigration issue. In the process, he's become something of the de facto point person for the party.
The latest entrant into this effort: House Majority leader Eric Cantor. On Tuesday, Cantor gave a well-received speech at the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a fellow), titled "Making Life Work." In it, Cantor argued for utterly reasonable conservative solutions that would improve the plight of the working poor and the middle class.
It's all good stuff from a great field. Indeed, while calling them the "fantastic four" might seem hyperbolic -- and unfair to a few other politicians left out of the mix -- Rubio, Ryan, Jindal and Cantor are a pretty good counterargument to those who think the Republican Party is doomed. Excellent politicians all, three out of four are minorities: a Hispanic, an Indian-American, and a Jew -- which sounds like they should be walking into a bar for a joke. The fourth, the Catholic Ryan, routinely wins a working-class district that votes Democratic in presidential elections.
I should note that lately I've written favorably about this rebranding stuff as well. In a nutshell, I've been arguing that the GOP's problems don't stem from a lack of principle, but from a lack of persuasiveness.
My point was not -- and is not -- that the GOP should abandon its commitment to core conservative principles. If you can't get the swing voters to vote for the existing level of conservatism the GOP is offering, it seems odd to argue that the GOP needs to peddle an even more strident form of conservatism (even if that purer conservatism would yield better policies). If a potential customer says, "The Chevy Impala is too pricey," a good salesman doesn't immediately respond, "OK, can I interest you in a Bentley?"
All that said, I think the push to rebrand the GOP has its own pitfalls.
For starters, "prudence" and "don't be stupid," while excellent prescriptions for how to behave, are not, in themselves, great rallying cries. If you don't believe me, try to get a crowd of the faithful to start chanting "Pru-dence! Pru-dence!" or "We're Not Stupid! We're Not Stupid!"
While this may seem obvious, the fact is that one GOP's worst tics is its habit of reading its stage directions out loud. For instance, Republicans often talk about how they're not going to "go negative." George H.W. Bush had such contempt for Bill Clinton's gift for wholesale empathy, he felt the need to proclaim, "Message: I care."
Obviously, Republicans should care about what is best for the country and the voters -- and they should demonstrate that concern -- but they will never beat liberals at the game of whose heart bleeds the most. As liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne observes, Cantor's rebranding maneuvers the GOP into a contest on Democratic turf: who cares more about workers, the poor, immigrants, etc. As Dionne notes, that's why Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer immediately praised Cantor's remarks.
The reason that game is so perilous for conservatives is not that liberals necessarily care more than conservatives but that they are always willing and eager to prove their concern by cutting a check, even when all we have in the checking account is IOUs and cash on loan from China. Moreover, they are perfectly happy and eager to say that anyone who opposes more check-kiting is greedy or selfish, even if what Democrats are doing is making the problem they seek to solve worse. All too often, liberals act as if government has a monopoly on compassion.
"There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism," Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, "joined with a certain superiority in its fact." Children often think their parents are being mean when they tell their kids to do their homework. That doesn't make the parents mean, it makes them responsible. Eventually, the lessons of life persuade children their parents were right all along.
Voters aren't children, but too many of them have the childish notion that the best policies are those that pander to their immediate desires. The challenge for the GOP is to persuade them to put away childish things.