How Campaign Tactics Killed the GOP

Matt Lewis
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Posted: May 11, 2009 10:20 AM
http://weblogs.newsday.com/news/local/longisland/politics/blog/rovebush.jpgBefore Republicans can figure out how to make a comeback, they must analyze what went wrong in the first place.

Much has been written about this topic, but very little has dealt with how Republicans run political campaigns.

Republicans have been trained by consultants to "stay on message" (I know this because I have, in the past, taught conservative candidates this very technique.) Simply put, the theory goes like this: Certain issues naturally skew Republican and other issues naturally skew Democratic.

Though George W. Bush's tenure helped blur the lines on what were formerly solid Republican issues, Republicans have traditionally won on issues such as criminal justice (death penalty, 2nd Amendment rights, etc.), national defense, and defending family values. Democrats, of course, have traditionally won on issues like health care, poverty, and the environment. So, if the election is about who can keep you safe, Republicans win; if the election is about who cares more for the poor, Democrats win.

And so, elections are won by persuading voters that the defining issues of the election – the ones that determine for whom they will vote – are those that skew Republican.

In practice, this is done by parrying questions that skew Democratic, and changing the subject to issues that skew Republican. For example, if a Republican candidate is asked about health care, he might say, "That's an important issue, but the folks I'm talking to tell me the most important thing to them is X." Of course, 'X' might be fighting crime, or family values, or any issue that polling or experience would lead you to believe favors Republicans. The assumption, of course, is that Republicans can't win if the most important issue is health care.

(By the way, Democrats were brilliant at this. During the Lewinski scandal, if you asked Paul Begala about Monica Lewinski, he would give you a five minute answer all about Ken Starr.)

In fact, changing the subject from issues that hurt you to ones that benefit you is actually a smart tactical move for most politicians at the micro level. In reality, few local (or even congressional) candidates have the bandwidth to change long-held perceptions about the political parties, so they are well advised to use the limited resources they have to talk about issues they might actually win on.

But what about policy issues at the macro level?

The problem, of course, is that, over time, Republicans have ceded a tremendous number of issues, such as health care and the environment. Consider this: If Republicans continually ignore Democratic-leaning issues, but at the same time Democrats attempt to co-opt Republican-leaning issues (for example, Democrats hired a faith "guru" to teach them how to talk to Evangelicals), Democrats eventually become adept at "talking" like Republicans, while Republicans gain no experience in handling Democratic-leaning issues. An entire generation of Republicans is now unequipped to discuss a myriad of issues, while Democrats can go into a church and sound like Jerry Falwell when they want to.

Notice how this phenomenon mirrors another controversial campaign tactic: "Targeting."

Targeting means ignoring certain people (because they are already for you or against you), and focusing your resources on undecided, but persuadable voters.

Taken to extremes, geographic targeting can mean ignoring entire parts of the country. For example, in recent years, Republicans have essentially written-off the Northeast and the coasts. Conversely, Howard Dean wisely insisted on rebuilding the Democratic Party with a 50-state strategy.

Demographic targeting can mean ignoring entire races or classes of people. Again, as bad as this sounds, both sides do it -- and it can be smart in the short-term (you've got to "hunt where the ducks are," so they say) -- but when repeated over and over, a party becomes tone deaf to what matters most to these potential voters.

In fairness, I should say that I have always been a proponent of having challenger campaigns target their precious resources to likely, undecided voters -- while political parties, organizations, and elected officials focus on growing the party or movement via outreach, voter registration, etc. The problem is we never get around to doing outreach. And because politicians must essentially never stop campaigning, there is an incentive to cut corners and focus on what gets you elected next year -- at the expense of long-term growth. This is great if you are worried about winning your election; it is potentially destructive if you are worried about building a movement.

At this point, you are probably expecting me to argue (as David Frum and Ross Douthat and others have) that the solution is for Republicans to "moderate" and embrace liberal ideas. Far from it. In fact, that would be just as misguided a solution as the ones that got us into this mess. Conceding defeat will not work, and is, in fact, guaranteed to fail.

The problem is not our philosophy, but that, by ignoring so many issues for so many years, Republicans have essentially allowed preconceived notions to take hold and Democrats to frame the issues.

For example, let's consider the issue of the poor and what to do about public housing. If conservatives ignore public housing, we have lost the issue by default. But even if we attempt to tackle it, accepting the preconceived notion that government should supply public housing also predestines our failure. Republicans will never be as good at spending government dollars as Democrats.

Jack Kemp understood this. He threw out preconceived notions and made the issue of low-income housing about empowering low-income citizens. Here's where "staying on message" works: When Democrats talk about handouts, Republicans should talk about giving low-income folks independence and self-sufficiency by instituting a policy where they can take ownership in their homes. Of course, the thing is, this cannot be merely a gimmick. You've actually got to believe in it.

As Robert L. Woodson, Sr., president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, wrote in the Washington Times about Jack Kemp,
Jack called himself a "bleeding heart conservative." But that did not mean creating big government spending programs. Rather, he used his influence to summon the entrepreneurial spirit that resides in corporate America and low-income communities alike.
Another high profile example right now is the gay marriage debate. We have been told this is an argument over whether or not to allow gay marriage. But Ed Morrissey recently made what I think is an unconventional argument:
For the record, I don't think government should be in the marriage business at all. We'd be better off having everyone use partnership agreements that will get treated better than marriage contracts ever do these days in court, and leave the question of marriage to religious institutions. No-fault divorce destroyed any argument that government should protect the sanctity of marriage, and unless I've missed a deep groundswell for eliminating that, government does more to damage marriage now than it helps.
What if Republicans, instead of saying we support "domestic partnerships" or that we "oppose gay marriage," made the argument that the government shouldn't be involved in religion. I believe one could make a compelling conservative case -- just as Morrissey has -- that the fundamental problem lies with preconceived notions that government should be involved in religion. Government, after all, will only mess up religion.

To be sure, there are problems with innovative solutions like this. For one thing, these are nuanced positions that don't fit into the traditional political paradigms that have developed in the last several decades. As such, these positions could easily be misrepresented. For example, Morrissey's position -- though arguably the most conservative position one could take -- would likely be mischaracterized in a primary election as pro-gay marriage.

My point here is not to endorse these particular positions, but to illustrate a larger point: That Republicans must begin facing tough issues, questioning false premises, and finding creative, free market solutions to America's problems.

Innovative conservative solutions -- not "moderating" our conservative positions -- is the key to the GOP's comeback.