A Way Out of the Wilderness
Yes, we lost the election. But in a year when all currents were running against Republicans and our campaign was lackluster and erratic, Barack Obama received only 3.1 points more than Al Gore in 2000 and only 4.6 points more than John Kerry in 2004. The Democratic victory becomes durable only if Republicans make it so with the wrong moves.
Losing the election has led to a debate about whether the GOP should return to its Reaganite tradition or embark on a new reform course. This pundit-driven shoutfest presents a sterile, unnecessary choice. The party should embrace both tradition and reform; grass-roots Republicans want to apply timeless conservative principles to the new circumstances facing America.
In the coming year, we will be defined more by what we oppose than what we are for; the president-elect and the Democrats in Congress will control the agenda. We must pick fights carefully and center them around principle. The goal is to have the sharp differences that emerge make the GOP look like the more reasonable, hopeful and inviting party—which is easier said than done. A road map:
1. Avoid mindless opposition. We should support President Obama when he is right (Afghanistan), persuade him when his mind appears open (trade) and oppose him when he is wrong (taxes). It is the Republican Party’s job to hold him accountable on the merits only.
2. Be as comfortable talking about health care and education as national security and taxes. Republican health-care proposals are strong; they can trump the Democrats’ big-government ideas, but only if we advocate them with clarity, passion and conviction.
We must stress that the GOP wants families to be able to save, tax-free, for out-of-pocket medical expenses. People should be able to take their insurance from job to job. Small businesses should be able to pool risk to get the same discounts that big companies get. You can buy auto insurance from anywhere in America, even from a lizard, so why not health insurance? A national market would mean that health coverage for a 25-year-old New Yorker wouldn’t cost four times what it does in Pennsylvania. Individuals and families, not just companies, should get a tax break for buying health insurance. And we must stop junk lawsuits that drive up everybody’s health-care bills.
3. Winning the war on terror is a matter of national survival. Republicans must be President Obama’s best allies in waging unrelenting war against terrorists, and prod him sharply if he weakens or wavers.
4.Republicans must regain ground among critical voting groups. Voters ages 18–29 voted Democratic by a 2-to-1 margin. A market-oriented “green” agenda that’s true to our principles would help win them back. Hispanics dropped from 44 percent Republican in 2004 to 31 percent in 2008. The GOP won’t be a majority party if it cedes the young or Hispanics to Democrats. Republicans must find a way to support secure borders, a guest-worker program and comprehensive immigration reform that strengthens citizenship, grows our economy and keeps America a welcoming nation. An anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal. As the party of Lincoln, Republicans have a moral obligation to make our case to Hispanics, blacks and Asian-Americans who share our values. Whether we see gains in 2010 depends on it.
Winning requires addition, not subtraction. While the GOP’s strength is in the suburbs, exurbs and small towns, it cannot surrender urban America, especially if it wants to win states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio and regain strength in New England.
5. For now, our party ‘ s face is our congressional leadership. In the coming year, their response to the Democratic agenda will largely determine the speed of the party’s recovery. Senate and House Republicans will be seen more than any party chair or 2012 aspirant. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner must put on center stage their most persuasive, compelling members: Richard Burr and Jon Kyl in the Senate, and Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Mike Pence, Cathy McMorris, Peter Roskam and Kevin McCarthy in the House, for example. They should make our case as Congress and the administration wrangle on the economy, spending, taxes, health care, energy, education, values and defense.
6.Good candidates are essential. The GOP’s return can start as early as 2010. In the first midterm, since World War II, the “out party” has gained, on average, two seats in the Senate; since 1966, it’s gained an average of 6 governorships, 63 state Senate seats and 262 state House seats. The GOP can have a better-than-average 2010, but only if it recruits strong candidates. Their cultivation starts now. States remain our best source of presidential contenders and new ideas, so elect more governors.
There’s another reason why governors’ races and state legislative seats must be a priority in 2010: redistricting and reapportionment in 2011. Seven electoral votes (and congressional seats) are projected to move from mostly blue to mostly red states, and every House district will be redrawn.
7. Let every 2012 presidential prospect run free; there is no need to throttle anyone ‘ s candidacy. Republicans believe in markets, so why not let the marketplace of ideas, performance and persuasion naturally winnow the field? Gov. Sarah Palin will be held to a higher standard than she was during her nine-week vice presidential campaign; voters want to see if she can improve her game. She’s smart, but it’s unclear she can attract to Alaska advisers who will make her into a durable player on the national scene.
Regardless, a consensus about who should be our next standard bearer should develop organically, not be forced by public intellectuals intent on smashing a candidacy this instant, as some are with Palin. We need more people, not fewer, to take the stage for tryouts. Rather than declaring a prospective candidate unacceptable, what about bolstering people who would be attractive?
8. Anyone interested in 2012 must help in 2010. Republicans should remember how much presidential candidates help in re-energizing the grass roots, raising funds, encouraging good candidates and articulating a strong message. Palin, Romney, Gingrich, Pawlenty, Huckabee, Jindal, Giuliani: if you want to lead our ticket, earn our good will.
Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute and state-level operations are stuffed with writers and thinkers who should be drawn into the orbits of these potential candidates.
9. Culture matters. Suggestions that we abandon social conservatism, including our pro-life agenda, should be ignored. These values are often more popular than the GOP itself. The age of sonograms has made younger voters a more pro-life generation. And California and Florida approved marriage amendments while McCain lost both states. Republicans, in championing our values agenda, need to come across as morally serious rather than as judgmental. More than 4 million Americans who go to church more than once a week and voted in 2004 stayed home in 2008. They represented half the margin between Obama and McCain.
10. The GOP must master new media. Today, more than 70 percent of Americans say they find news online; 37 percent are online daily looking for it. Democrats have successfully developed tools to exploit online advocacy, and Republicans must spend more time and energy doing the same. The Web edge we had through 2004 is gone.
This is a long to-do list. But parties that have just been trashed in consecutive elections always have a lot of work to do. Yet Republicans, in recognizing the size of the challenge ahead, shouldn’t despair: President Obama and the Democrats in Congress will, fairly or not, own every problem that emerges. We remain a center-right nation, and the GOP will remain a center-right party based on an optimistic conservatism.
And political fortunes can change quickly. In 1992, Bill Clinton stood atop the political world; in 1994, he stood defeated after Republicans took control of the House. We can’t count on a replay of 1994, but we can take steps that will make 2010 a good year—and, with a bit of luck and skill, a very good year. Democrats control the levers of power, but Republicans still control their own fate.
Rove, the former senior adviser to President Bush, is a NEWSWEEK contributor.