During the recent election season pundits talked constantly about how the deck was stacked against Republicans. They suffered the misfortune of having as their party head an extremely unpopular President, they were defending more Senate seats than the Democrats, and the top issue in the election ended up being the economy rather than national security which traditionally benefits Republicans. Conventional wisdom was that even with outstanding candidates and unlimited money this would be a hard year for Republicans to win.
I guess I have never been big on conventional wisdom. Instead of the glass half empty view of the election, I saw some opportunities arise for Republicans. There is no doubt the Democrats had the upper hand, but there were some things within the control of Republicans that might have led to success if the candidates and the party had used them effectively.
The Democrats nominated arguably the most liberal candidate ever to run for President, and that candidate had a lack of experience and a long list of questionable acquaintances (from Ayers to Wright to Rezko) in his background.
The event most attribute Democrat success to -- the meltdown at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the sub-prime mortgage mess -- could have been tied to the Democrats considering the connections of Obama advisors like Jim Johnson and Franklin Raines, and with video evidence of high ranking congressional Democrats like Barney Frank thwarting efforts to reign in Fannie and Freddie. To top that off Republicans were handed a Mark Foley-like October Surprise when the man who defeated Foley two years ago, following the revelations of inappropriate instant message conversations with pages, was caught in a sex scandal of his own. The scandal surrounding Congressman Mahoney involved mistresses and hush money from campaign (and possibly even taxpayer) funds.
The media were more interested in making sure the public knew about the sex life of Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter and the cost of her campaign wardrobe than they were in Barack Obama’s ties to a domestic terrorist or how much money his advisors received from Fannie/Freddie. They were not interested in reporting how Obama talked one day about Iran being a tiny country that posed no threat to the United States and on the following day talked about how Iran was a grave and serious threat. There were much more pressing matters to report – like how Sarah Palin tried to ban Harry Potter (before it had even been written).
A project called HowObamaWasElected.com provides evidence of the shoddy job the American news media did educating the electorate. As part of the project, those who voted for Obama were asked questions about their knowledge of facts and issues related to the campaign. Some of the answers were shocking, but they helped explain a lot.
I wondered why the Congress controlled by the Democrats for the past two years was not suffering the wrath of voters’ intent on “throwing the bums out.” It wasn’t because the public loved the job they were doing. The approval numbers for the Congress have consistently been lower than that of President Bush, sometimes dipping close to single digits. But those interviewed on camera by HowObamaWasElected.com overwhelmingly believed the Republicans controlled Congress. I guess the voters’ intention was to throw the bums out of Congress after all – they just didn’t realize which bums were in charge. I guess they missed all those network news reports on the record low approval ratings for the Democrat Congress.
Media bias is nothing new. Although it reached new levels this election, it is not entirely to blame for losing so badly. No Republican has won national election in my lifetime because the media were on their side. It has always been necessary for Republicans to take their case directly to the people. With the rise of the DVR, which makes it possible for television viewers to fast forward through commercials, the best time for them to do this is during widely televised, unedited events -- particularly the party convention and the debates.
Republicans made good use of their convention, but in the debates, John McCain did not effectively challenge Barack Obama’s assertion that all the problems with mortgages and the market were due to George Bush’s economic policies. You can’t sit by and let your opponent repeat something again and again without calling them on it, then try to come back later and make the case that what they said was wrong. When you allow your opponent to spread misinformation about the issue voters rank as number one, you seal your defeat.
There is a debate raging on the right about what is more to blame – the message or the media. Republicans were not able to effectively get their message through to the voters because the media was so busy working for the Obama campaign. What made things worse, though, is that Republicans never really articulated a coherent overall message and some Republicans did not hold positions different enough from their Democrat opponents to provide an alternative message. The only message that has ever won nationally for Republicans is an unapologetically conservative one.
When John McCain rushed back to Washington to jump on the massive bailout bandwagon it became hard for him to argue that his approach to the problem would be significantly different than that of Barack Obama and impossible to argue that his was a conservative solution.
If Republicans hope to have any chance to win in 2010 and 2012 they will have to find more effective ways to combat the liberal bias in the media, but even more important they need to decide what they stand for and then to stand firm. Since country is the music preferred by many in the red states, I’ll borrow a line from a song by Van Zandt:
“…Stick to your guns, if you believe in something, no matter what, ‘cause it’s better to be hated for who you are than be loved for who you’re not.”
Currently Barack Obama is being loved for who he’s not and it’s working out pretty well for him, but if he continues down that road and governs as someone voters don’t recognize, he may pay for it later.
Republicans are afraid of being hated for being conservative, so many have gone the “moderate” route, with poor electoral results. If they would stand solidly for conservative principles and policies voters might actually learn what conservatism really is, rather than the stereotypes they have in their heads. Maybe they would even win a few elections along the way.