Republicans Need to Rethink Their Product Line

Republicans Need to Rethink Their Product Line

By Reed Galen - January 30, 2013

As 2013 unfolds, Republicans are still recovering from the results of last November’s election. The outcome, worse than even most GOP pessimists had predicted, created a shockwave in the party that is still reverberating.

This condition isn’t unusual for the party out of power. The Democrats experienced similar time in the desert during George W. Bush’s presidency. They found cohesion in the form of Barack Obama and have used his time in office to build an enviable infrastructure and a strategy for going forward.

Today the GOP is like the Detroit auto industry of the mid-1980s. It produces ugly cars, poorly designed and built. Worse, only legacy buyers want them. When I was a kid, my family had a 1985 Oldsmobile Firenza. It was the typically hideous metallic powder-blue box on wheels. One day it stopped running. The mechanic said there was a crack in the engine block -- GM’s engines of that era were notorious for such complete structural failures, he said.

We Republicans need to go back to the drawing board and come up with new engineering and a new production line. As much as we like to look back on Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” from 1984, that country doesn’t exist anymore.

The imagery -- an old man raising the American flag, a straight white couple getting married in a church, a farmer on his tractor -- is still valid. But those kinds of tableaux aren’t enough for Republicans to tell our story in the 21st century.

The hagiography with which we discuss Reagan is comforting, as it allows us to look back on a time when everything seemed to make sense. The Soviets were bad, church was good, the American way of life was heroic. We finally felt good about ourselves again. Reagan was a great president, but a key ingredient in his success was that he that brought his vision -- his positive vision -- to an electorate desperately looking for one.

Republicans have become too negative and exclusive. In too many cases we’re trying too hard to hold onto something that now exists only in our memories and YouTube videos.

In a recent discussion with a socially conservative colleague, I posited that the real role of political parties is, primarily, to elect candidates. He took issue with this, countering that parties are meant to espouse a specific ideology.

A cohesive ideology is necessary and helpful for winning an election. However, if those beliefs don’t attract voters -- and that party refuses to change its ways -- it might as well be a church -- the kind in which the leaders are content to see their membership dwindle rather than adapt to the times.

Our problem is not how we “frame” our arguments. It’s that our arguments don’t fit the views of the national electorate: A majority of Americans found our solutions uncompelling. All the data mining, social media interaction and television advertising won’t do a bit of good if our messages and messengers aren’t powerful and believable.

If we don’t give voters a proactive, positive and hopeful alternative to the current state of affairs, there’s no reason for them to give us a first look, let alone a second. The way we discuss issues -- from abortion to immigration -- are so negative that women, minorities and younger voters want little, if anything, to do with us.

There is hope, though. Although Mitt Romney lost nearly all of the battleground states last year, the GOP currently holds governorships in 10 of them. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker survived a recall effort led by well-funded labor interests. Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Brian Sandoval in Nevada have shown that a Republican can win in states with large and growing Latino populations.

These governors, and leaders in blue states like Chris Christie of New Jersey, have the crossover appeal Republicans need. Nationally, the GOP must do two things: First we must understand how these governors built the coalitions that helped them win and, secondly, work with them to create new opportunities to draw voters into the fold for their own re-elections in 2013, ’14, and for 2016.

The party enjoys a deep bench of potential national leaders. We need to marry their success with a larger national effort to develop a value proposition for independent voters, and we need to build on the honesty of governors like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal.

The alternative to this fundamental shift in how we communicate, to whom we speak and how we run campaigns is to simply wait for systemic failure, as is the case in states like California. That isn’t a strategy. It’s cynicism. And it is the last thing the party or the country needs more of. 

Reed Galen is a political strategist in California. He was John McCain's deputy campaign manager until July 2007.

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