‘The Republican brand is deeply damaged” was a painfully common assessment after the election. A lot of Republicans were eager to blame the party’s thoroughly lousy performance on the presidential nominee, but there is considerable evidence that the unpopularity goes well beyond that: Romney won more votes than GOP Senate candidates in almost all of the swing states — and in some fairly red states, including Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota.
Conservative ideas, though, won in distinctly Democratic-leaning states once the word “Republican” was no longer associated with them. In Michigan, where Obama won handily, a push to enshrine collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution was roundly defeated, 58 to 42 percent. In California, voters rejected a proposition to repeal the death penalty, rejected mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, and also rejected Proposition 38, which would have added funding to education and early-childhood programs by raising taxes on those making as little as $75,000 a year. In Virginia, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment making it tougher for the state government to seize private property under eminent domain — while Romney and George Allen were losing statewide.
So why are Republicans so much less popular than their ideas? A ubiquitous accusation from their Democratic rivals, echoed by an allied media, is that Republicans lack empathy to the point of displaying sheer meanness. With Obama running up huge margins among various demographics — African-Americans, Hispanics, women, young people — the argument is that the GOP increasingly represents an aging, white, bitter, and angry rump of the electorate, lashing out nastily at a world changing too fast for them.
For the sake of argument, let us contemplate why an unaffiliated voter might think Republicans are mean.
The “47 percent”: In Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remarks, the worst line was, “My job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Even if there was some valid lament in there about a culture of dependency, the phrasing was about as harmful as possible, because it suggested that as president Romney wouldn’t “worry” about those people — that is, wouldn’t govern with their needs in mind, because he deemed them uninterested in self-sufficiency.
If you believe that conservative ideas work, you hopefully believe that the formula — a decent education, hard work, prudence, thrift, and a dollop of ambition — can and will work for anyone and everyone. “Some of you people are just hopeless” is an awful political slogan, and one that actually strengthens the case for liberalism: If a significant chunk of the citizenry is indeed unable or unwilling to care for itself — not merely failing to do so in response to incentives created by liberal policies — then some entity must step in to do that, and the state is probably best equipped for this task.
Most conservatives’ objection to the culture of dependency is that it results in a waste of human potential: in jobs gone unfilled, in able-bodied men and women not pursuing something better and not becoming role models for their children because they’ve been conditioned to believe that a government check is the best they can achieve. We hate the culture of dependency because we love those trapped in it and want to see them living better, happier, more fulfilling lives. If we truly hated them, we would want to keep them there.
None of that worldview came through in Romney’s remarks, and they were exacerbated by his post-election remarks summarized here by the Los Angeles Times:
Obama, Romney argued, had been “very generous” to blacks, Hispanics and young voters. He cited as motivating factors to young voters the administration’s plan for partial forgiveness of college loan interest and the extension of health coverage for students on their parents’ insurance plans well into their 20s. Free contraception coverage under Obama’s healthcare plan, he added, gave an extra incentive to college-age women to back the president.
“The president’s campaign,” he said, “focused on giving targeted groups a big gift — so he made a big effort on small things. Those small things, by the way, add up to trillions of dollars.”
In short, Romney concluded that he lost because he couldn’t make a better offer to voters in key demographics who were essentially motivated by laziness and greed.
There’s a word that accurately summarizes the perspective of Republicans who believe that Latinos voted for Obama because they want amnesty for criminals and endless welfare, that young people voted for Obama because they’re ignorant and want free birth control, and that blacks voted for Obama because they wanted free cell phones: contempt. And it’s hard to persuade people to adopt your perspective, join your movement, or vote for your candidate when you speak of them with contempt.
The Sandra Fluke “slut” argument: When Democrats spotlighted Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke for her conviction that employers should be required to provide insurance that covers birth control, it was hard to imagine a more self-destructive reaction than Rush Limbaugh’s initial one:
What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.
Wait, it got worse:
So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.
This was a winnable argument for conservatives: In essence, Fluke expected Catholic institutions to violate their core principles and pay for something they deemed wrong, simply because she really wanted it. But the Right’s legitimate points quickly got drowned out in the brouhaha over Rush’s use of the S-word.
We roll our eyes at the Democratic party’s deification of Fluke, at Obama’s reassuring phone call to her, at her speech at the convention in Charlotte, and at her sometimes sparsely attended appearances on the campaign trail for Democratic candidates. But grassroots conservatives greeted every Fluke appearance like a bull seeing a waving red flag; quite a few among us enjoyed bringing back the S-word and mocking her as a nymphomaniac.
To his credit, Rush quickly apologized and said he regretted speaking about Fluke in the highly personalized terms of the Left. The issue never was, or never should have been, her sex life (or even the largely neglected side issue that some women need birth-control medications for health reasons). The issue was government power.