Ross Douthat asks that question, more specifically about the Romney campaign, and answers it “no.”
Since Bush left office, conservatives have been willing to acknowledge his failures as a fiscal conservative and to promise more responsibility on deficits and debt. This has been a necessary and important shift, responsible both for the energy of the Tea Party in the 2010 midterm elections and for the current Republican ticket’s (relatively) brave proposals on entitlement reform.
But the shift toward fiscal rectitude is the easy part, in a sense, because it just involved calling conservatives back to their principles, without necessarily acknowledging the places where ideology might need to adapt itself to new realities. It’s made the Republicans more serious than they were in January of 2008, but it’s left the party’s post-Bush weaknesses on the economy and foreign policy conspicuously unaddressed.
A presidential nominee could have filled this breach with fresh rhetoric and creative policy, but Romney, compromised and uncourageous, hasn’t been the right man for that job. On economics, he’s shifted awkwardly between a message that focuses (sensibly) on the struggles of the middle and working classes and a much more conventional right-wing celebration of entrepreneurs and “job creators.” On national security, he’s campaigned as a by-the-numbers hawk, with barely a hint that hawkishness might have delivered America into difficulties during the last Republican administration.
With unemployment still over 8 percent, he may be able to win with this kind of uncreative message. But the economy is stagnant, not collapsing, which means he’s not going to win a big majority just by showing up.
To win the kind of victory that conservatives seem to think they should be winning, the Republican Party needs two things: a domestic agenda that offers more to hard-pressed families than just generic conservative rhetoric about the genius of capitalism and a foreign policy program that reflects the hard lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is the simple reality of presidential politics in 2012. Americans don’t want to give the White House back to the Republicans because they remember the Bush era all too well. If they continue to be disappointed at the polls, conservatives will eventually recognize this problem and grope toward some sort of solution. Until then, the fault for their party’s underperformance will lie not in the stars or the structure of our society but in their own stubborn selves.
It’s easy to beat up on the Romney campaign while we’re waiting for Obama’s post convention bounce to settle and indeed, I think other than his selection of Paul Ryan, he has been far too cautious and unwilling to draw distinctions between himself and Obama.
However, the Republican Party itself is stuck in a feedback loop from the eighties. We’re constantly presented with three different choices, all of which are ultimately losers: become spineless moderates who stand for nothing, dump social conservatives and embrace Libertarianism, or pursue Reagan’s agenda from the eighties.
Other than in the bluest parts of the country, the first path is a huge loser. The same is true of the second option. Percentage wise, there are a lot of social conservatives and very few fiscal conservatives/social liberals. You don’t grow a political party by jettisoning a large voting block to capture a small voting block.
However, the last option is a loser, too. There’s a huge difference between principles and an agenda. Conservative principles are more relevant than ever. The same can’t be said for Reagan’s agenda. Sure, Reagan’s agenda was PHENOMENAL during the Reagan years, but today a lot of it is outdated.
For example, debt is a MUCH bigger problem today than it was in Reagan’s time and we’re no longer at war with the Soviet Union. So, should we really be running on cutting taxes for the rich? It’s one thing to say, “We oppose tax increases,” and it’s another to say we want to cut taxes for the wealthy when we’re on track to run trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. Along those same lines, why are we working to increase our military budget and thwart defense cuts Republicans in Congress have already agreed to implement? We talk a lot about how important it is to get spending under control, but neither of those agenda items make it sound like we’re serious. Personally, the only taxes I support cutting right now are corporate taxes because we have the highest corporate tax rate in the world and it’s driving businesses overseas and costing people jobs.
In Reagan’s day, the country was considerably whiter. Today, we have a lot more minorities, they vote heavily Democratic, and we do almost no outreach. Reagan didn’t need to do minority outreach. However, we sure do today.
It is true that the Republican Party talks about reducing the cost of health care, cutting gas prices, improving schools with vouchers, crime, and trade issues that impact the middle class, but they’re treated as sideshows by the Republican Party. The problem with that is these are core issues we can deliver on to make the lives of middle class Americans better. We can actually make it cheaper to go to the doctor, make it so that you pay less at the pump every week, get crime under control in bad neighborhoods, and make it so that poor and middle class Americans can send their kids to the fancy private schools the rich attend via vouchers. Fair trade is a little more complex than that, but saying we’re for “free trade” isn’t enough. American workers can compete with anybody, across the globe, but if we’re giving other nations free access to the greatest market in the world, we have a right to demand that same access for American products.
This is one of the biggest places both parties fall down, but it’s more noticeable with the Republican Party since we’re supposed to be the adults in the room. We pass laws against illegal immigration and then we don’t follow ‘em. We agree to build a wall and then we don’t do it. Corporations make big money when times are good, which is fine, but then when times are bad, the taxpayers are expected to bail them out. We have a housing crash that was caused by Congress and no one there is blamed or punished for his behavior. We give nations billion of dollars in aid and they pay us back by insulting us, voting against us in the UN, and often even by demonizing us in their government-run press as Egypt has.
The point of this isn’t to beat up on the Republican Party because although it does deserve a boot in the behind, not only is it infinitely better than the alternative, it does actually have policy proposals that can make life better for the American people, which isn’t something the Democrats can say.