The response on the right to the Republican National Committee’s 2012 after-action report has mostly ranged from “meh” to “argh,” with our own editors falling somewhere in between. And while I had problems with large swaths of the 100-page “Growth and Opportunity Project,” it did get a few important things right. I do mean a few — I usually have five in these columns, but I could only think of four.
Stop Preaching to the Choir In an overture that sets the tone for the rest of the document, the co-chairs of the report call out Republicans for being the weird guy on the bus mumbling to nobody in particular: “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.” They also call for a touchier, feelier GOP: “Instead of driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac, we need a Party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us. We need to remain America’s conservative alternative to big-government, redistribution-to-extremes liberalism, while building a route into our Party that a non-traditional Republican will want to travel. Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism.”
As much as you’re going to groan and roll your eyes and ask me just where the hell I think “compassionate conservatism” got us, there is a lot of truth to this. Too many conservatives and Republicans operate under the assumption that the United States is still (or ever was) big-C Conservative. It might still be small-c conservative, but that’s not the same thing when the status quo is the amoebic expansion of the state. We have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that there simply are not, at this time, enough big-C Conservatives to support a Conservative majority party. You can respond to that by watering down conservatism (boo), or by winning converts (hooray). But winning converts is not the same as trying to persuade an enduring silent Conservative majority who just need to be reminded of what they already believe. Conversion requires explicitly different arguments than we use with the choir.
Kill Cannibalistic Primaries The most damning (if mostly implicit) indictment in the RNC report is of the Republican presidential-primary process itself. Can anyone seriously doubt that the primary was a net negative, not just for eventual nominee Mitt Romney, but for whoever had won, and for the party as a whole? The diffusion of power to the state parties produces an interminable calendar of contests, and that space gets filled by endless debates delivering diminishing returns, while giving the media outsized power to shape the narrative to boot. Nor, of course, can Romney-haters argue that the long primary gave the underdogs the time to unseat him. It merely gave them the time to weaken him, and the party brand, while Barack Obama built his war chest. Besides, the primary season is so dragged out, and the debates so numerous, that there is room to consolidate without losing the chance for substantive discussion or denying dark horses the time and space necessary to surge. Similarly, the way Democrats run their primary illustrates that there is room for the RNC to assert more structural and operational control over the process without bringing back the bad old Boardwalk Empire days of smoke-filled rooms. The RNC report’s suggestions — fewer, more tightly controlled debates, regionalized primaries, and the like — is a good start.
The Need for Killer Apps No, Mitt Romney probably would not have been president even if his get-out-the-vote app, Orca (Shame! Infamy!) hadn’t beached itself on Election Day. But the size of President Obama’s win, and the post facto diagramming of the fearsome machinery of the Democrats’ fundraising and GOTV juggernauts, drove home just how much the technology gap helped doom the GOP’s prospects in 2012 before they even got off the ground. The report essentially admits that the Republicans had given the Democrats an eight-year head start on the laborious and expensive process of digitalizing presidential campaigns, and that the GOP lacked the kind of real-time data collection, analysis, and distribution tools that the Obama campaign used to carry what were essentially precision-engineered, bespoke majorities in battleground states. Its authors recommend both the hiring of more dedicated tech/digital staff (including an RNC chief technology officer) and better in-house training for traditional communications and fundraising staffers, to get them into the 21st century. They also recognize one tool the Republicans can use to catch up more quickly: Money. Loads and pallets and metric tons of money. Sure, closing the tech gap is going to require the organic cultivation of digitally savvy Republicans. But a goodly part of it can be outsourced to coders primarily interested in making a buck.
Strategy Over Logistics Perhaps the best part of the RNC report is what it does not say. With the exception of an unfortunate and undercooked foray into “comprehensive immigration reform,” which is for Republicans searching for a panacea what “plastics” were to that guy from The Graduate, the RNC report is at pains to point out that it is not a policy document. Just so. As the military saying goes, “amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics.” And that’s what the RNC document does, mostly. It lays out a plan for building the kind of structures that will best transmit the GOP message, and for establishing the sorts of procedures that will ensure that those best able to transmit that message will be in a position to do so. But it doesn’t say much — or at least doesn’t say much of use — on what that message should be. Nor should it. The hard work of producing a winning Republican platform is going to have to be done by the candidates running on it.