Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has launched a nationwide “Growth and Opportunity Project” reviewing eight key areas he believes must be examined in the wake of a disappointing 2012 campaign.
While I applaud Priebus for his willingness to engage in some self-critical analysis, the reality is none of the eight aspects he’s reviewing holds the key to a Republican resurgence. It’s not that reviewing campaign mechanics, messaging, fundraising, demographics, SuperPacs, campaign finance laws, the primary calendar, and successful Democrat tactics aren’t important because they are. That’s why I might spend as much time analyzing the process of politics as any nationally-syndicated conservative radio host does.
But if you’re analyzing what went wrong in 2012, and is still going wrong for the GOP right now, it begins and ends with its principles—or lack thereof.
No campaign, no matter how well-funded and organized, can rise above its own candidate. Now, a campaign can sink a good candidate (and haven’t we seen plenty of that recently) but it can’t make a bad candidate good, because grueling campaigns reveal every candidate’s true character and capabilities. You can’t hide your candidate in today’s multi-media environment where everybody has a camera on their phone and mobile device. If a candidate lacks integrity, consistency, professionalism, or discipline, it will be found out. A good campaign with a bad candidate is like good marketing of a bad product. All that good marketing can do for a bad product is help consumers realize quicker just how bad the product really is once they buy it.
There was no technology, messaging, or fundraising that was going to save Mitt Romney. For heaven’s sake, the GOP was so flushed with cash the RNC ended the 2012 campaign cycle with unspent money in the bank. No tactic was going to make people forget that Romney was on every side of every issue. No tactic was going to make the conservative base forget how many times Romney had sold them out. The campaign revealed Romney failed to be bold, consistent, and aggressive. If he does those things effectively and credibly, then the process comes into play, but until he does the process is irrelevant.
People become Republicans or vote Republican based on issues and not personalities. People become Democrats or vote Democrat based on personalities (identity based politics). This is why Republicans tend to win general elections when they’re about issues, and Democrats tend to win when they’re about personas.
When you think Republican you think issues: limited government, pro-life, anti-tax, strong national defense, family values, etc. When you think Democrat you think personas: blacks, Hispanics, single women, homosexuals, young adults, etc. That’s why Obama ran in 2008 on the narrative of being the first black president (or “the one”), and in 2012 on the phony “war on women” meme.
What did Romney run on? He ran solely on Obama’s failures, but that’s not an issue that’s a complaint. Yes, Reagan famously asked voters in 1980 “are you better off than you were four years ago?” But he still had to give them a credible vision on issues they could vote for and not just against. To this day, decades later, its still those issues Reagan’s presidency is most known for—specifically tax cuts to stimulate the economy and defeating the Soviet Union.
Romney couldn’t win the general election for the same reason all establishment milquetoast candidates have lost since 1976: they failed to inspire their base in the primary which is always a sign they won’t inspire the masses in the general election. It should be simple common sense to anyone with any marketing acumen that if you can’t convince those most likely to buy your product to buy it, you’ll never convince those initially skeptical to do so.
Until Reince Priebus and the other five Republican “leaders” assisting him on this project make first things first – and this case that means principles – they’re either not really serious about winning or incapable of it. Voters, even many Republicans, could care less about voting for a political party brand-name. They also don’t care that you dressed your stink-brick up in pretty pastels, or that you said “pretty please” when you asked them to take that lemon off their hands on social media.
There’s a reason the most noteworthy national Republican election victories of the last 30 years happened in 1980, 1984, 1994, and 2010. It’s because those were the years the GOP did the best job of offering a truly principled contrast to the Democrats, thus framing the election those years around issues and not personalities. The Left tried saying we hated women and minorities those years, too. But since Republicans focused the voters on issues first it never became about personalities.
Right now the average American thinks Republicans hate Obama because he’s black and/or just because he’s a Democrat. Until that changes no amount of addressing the process will change that perception of Republicans. And until Republicans rediscover their principles again, that perception will remain.