The Republicans went into this week’s election laboring under two major weaknesses. The first was a deficit of personal appeal in their candidates, especially Mitt Romney. The second was more serious: The GOP coalition simply isn’t broad enough, and it is shrinking. The solution to both of these problems is to embrace new leaders and new thinking in a revival of the principles that made America great.
Governor Romney always struck me as a person of sterling character: reasonable, ethical, and surpassingly benevolent. Despite his purple Massachusetts record, I never doubted his essentially conservative outlook — the belief in limited government, economic freedom, and self-reliance. But his presence and speaking style often reminded me of leading men from the Gilded Age of Hollywood, like a star out of Turner Classic Movies.
In the end, Americans seemed to trust Romney on the issues. But he never overcame President Obama’s advantage in personal favorability. Americans felt that Obama was better able to relate to them, because, unlike Romney, Obama seemed to be one of them. Obama is more charismatic, yes, and a better speaker, yes — but the real difference is that Obama is a man of his time, of this generation, while Romney seems a man from another time, and a bygone generation.
The “fix” here will be easy enough. The GOP has a rising cadre of exceptionally talented and appealing young leaders. That bunch has several stars with the kind of personal appeal that could attract millions of independents and Democrats. The reason so many Americans flocked to Reagan was not just that they agreed with his principles but, even more, that they simply loved him and trusted him. The next leader of the GOP should be someone who can command the affection and trust of a broad majority. Therein lies hope for the kind of unifying leader who can guide America through the national crises that now loom in both domestic and foreign affairs.
But this week’s defeat was not mainly a question of personality — or even of the policy positions that Romney took. Obama ran as a gravely injured incumbent, running on the worst economic record of any president since World War II. Moreover, his penchant for insulting opponents and condescending to leaders across the aisle has alienated millions of Americans. He won 10 million fewer votes than he did in 2008. If Romney-Ryan had managed to garner as many votes as McCain-Palin, a ticket nobody really thought could win, the GOP ticket might have prevailed this time. People agreed with Romney on many issues. His likability deficit was grave, but not insurmountable, as the first presidential debate showed. That Romney and GOP Senate candidates lost in almost every swing state is clear evidence that the GOP faces grave structural problems. Those problems won’t go away with a new crop of leaders.
Here the GOP has to face existential questions about what it stands for and how it can compete with the Democrats for a broad majority. During the Bush administration, the GOP often abandoned its principles. In recent years, it has erred on the side of ideological stridency. The GOP needs to be both principled and innovative. That will require new thinking on the most contentious issues.
The GOP has taken principled, intellectually correct positions on the most serious issues: spending, entitlement reform, tax reform, and regulations. But those are frightfully easy for Democrats to demagogue. Part of the solution is federalism: When in doubt, push the issue onto the states and let them deal with it. That is the recipe for entitlement reform.
Another part of the solution is to agitate for a “big bang” in business activity through sweeping regulatory and tax reform. By standing in the way of such reforms, Democrats are keeping the nation from bouncing back to the high growth rates that are a vital part of any solution to runaway deficits. On all fronts, however, Republicans need to be flexible in pursuit of their ultimate goals.
Starting with the New Deal, the Democrats established a more or less permanent governing coalition based on the redistribution of wealth. They dramatically strengthened that position through the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Hence their uninterrupted half-century (from the 1940s until the 1990s) in control of the House of Representatives. People like free stuff, and the Democrats offer lots of it.
The GOP can’t be true to its principles of limited government, economic freedom, and self-reliance while competing with the Democrats on who can give out more free stuff for their voters. To remove the advantage that the Democrats enjoy here, the GOP has to find ways of constricting their ability to use government as a wealth-transfer scheme for the benefit of their supporters. That means going after government benefits for special interests as doggedly as conservatives have gone after earmarks. The primary targets are government-sponsored cartels and subsidies for agriculture, laws that protect labor unions from the competition of non-union labor, and Obamacare.