After three weeks of explaining to disheartened Republicans exactly what happened on Nov. 4, I’m beginning to feel more like a grief counselor than a political analyst. In the days leading up to the presidential election, with poll numbers trending the wrong way, most Republicans were in a state of group denial — “This can’t be happening.”
By the morning after the election, anger quickly replaced denial and the blame game was in full swing. “It’s the media’s fault. It’s George Bush’s fault. It’s Sarah Palin’s fault. John McCain was a lousy candidate. Barack Obama bought the election. The base was unhappy.”
Unquestionably, there were elements of truth in those complaints — Bush’s job approval was a significant drag on the ticket, for example, and some of the media did take sides in the presidential contest on a whole new level. But, just as it did in the 2006 elections and three special elections for House seats that followed, the Republican Party fundamentally misunderstood the root cause of its failure to maintain a majority coalition: an inability to articulate a positive agenda that connected with voters.
Instead, the blame was placed on everyone and everything but the issue-less, relentlessly negative campaigns that party operatives have promoted for years; campaigns aimed almost entirely at turning out an angry base rather than appealing to a broader coalition.
This year, the same players dragged out the same, tired negative campaign strategy and, not surprisingly, the party hit a brick wall. As Albert Einstein liked to say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
To rebuild its winning coalition, the party must change, not by jettisoning its core principles but by using those principles to create a modern Republican Party, in touch once again with a country that remains center-right. Some party leaders and pundits have suggested the GOP has simply lost its way.
All it has to do to regain majority status, by their reckoning, is return to the principles of Ronald Reagan. But that thinking is based on revisionist history.
Reagan didn’t create Republican principles in the late 1970s. He crafted a modernized agenda based on those principles, but one that reflected the challenges of his time. For example, Reagan embraced the traditional Republican principle of less government regulation, but applied it to create a new environment that encouraged innovation and allowed the emerging technology industry to take off.
Reagan provides a good model. When it came to setting his agenda, he relied on a set of core values, but he wasn’t afraid of changing technologies or changing times. He embraced them, pushed bold solutions and made history.
The world today, however, is very different from the one Reagan inherited nearly 30 years ago. The GOP must develop a modern agenda that acknowledges those differences, addresses the key concerns of this generation of Americans and keeps the country strong and competitive.
Yes, we must remain true to our basic principles. Yes, we can look back for inspiration. But we must look forward for solutions that reflect the challenges of these times. And as we do, we must build that modern Republican agenda in a more inclusive way if the party is to have a long-term future.
The GOP cannot remain viable if it continues to sustain the kind of losses we saw this year with younger voters, Hispanics, middle-income voters and other key swing voters. The modern Republican agenda must connect with more than the base.
Along with accepting the need for a forward- looking, inclusive, modernized agenda, it’s time the party also embraces a modern approach to campaigns. The negative campaign strategy, tactics and training that have characterized Republican operations for most of the past two decades are more than outdated. They simply don’t work.
In fact, one could argue, at this point, they are doing more harm than good.
Is it any surprise that the Republican brand has become so negative when, over the past three election cycles, national Republican committees and individual campaigns have chosen to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads rather than promoting Republican ideas and candidates in a positive way?
On the National Republican Congressional Committee’s YouTube site, not one ad in the 60 highlighted on its first couple of video pages offered a positive view of the party or individual Republican House candidates. In 2008 as it did in 2006, the party squandered millions and, more importantly, a crucial opportunity to have a conversation with the American people about what Republicans would do to solve their problems.
What we have here is a “failure to communicate” on all fronts, especially when it comes to the new media technology. From YouTube to Twitter to the blogosphere to building effective e-mail lists, the GOP is significantly behind.
Building a new media capability must be a top priority of the incoming heads of the party committees. So should a revamping of the education and training programs that turn out young campaign operatives steeped in the mythology of negative campaigning and the antiquated notion that all politics is local.
These future leaders of the party must understand that ideas matter, that voters today are looking for leaders with positive solutions, and that nationalized elections are the new reality in the age of the new media.
If acceptance is the last phase of the five stages of grief, then it’s time Republicans moved on to this reality: A modern, future-oriented Republican agenda based on core principles and supported by a modern Republican Party is the way out of the wilderness.
David Winston is president of the Winston Group, a Republican polling firm and a Roll Call Contributing Writer.