A year ago many asked the question “Does President Obama have a chance to get re-elected?” Coming off the 2010 electoral slaughter of the Democrats, the GOP was riding high. They had the House, the Senate was within reach, Obama’s approval ratings were dropping, and his efforts to intervene in the debt ceiling crisis and on the budget appeared at best ineffective, at worst inept. Some even suggested Hillary run, or that party elders quietly convince Obama to step down for the good of the party.
The GOP didn’t know for sure who would beat Obama in 2012 — Romney, Perry, Daniels, Christy, Rubio and others were all talked about. But it didn’t seem to matter, the Democrats had overreached and the political winds were blowing their way. Sound familiar? The Democrats thought the same way in early 2009.
As I noted before, the political pendulum can swing quickly. President Obama’s approval numbers, never as low as Ronald Reagan’s or Bill Clinton’s early in their terms, have jumped from the low 40s to at or near 50% in both the Rasmussen and Gallup daily tracking polls. The economy is rebounding, with a string of good job reports setting up the potential for a much brighter public mood by late summer. However, the reason the GOP may find itself in an unwinnable election is not because Obama is suddenly going to recapture the magic of 2008; rather, the Republican message is off track.
Increasingly Republicans speak in a tone of harsh negativity (“Obama is destroying America, has a radical socialist agenda, etc.) That’s fine red meat for the primary season, but it has to be coupled with a vision — a sense of the future that does not rely on criticism of the Democrats to make their point.
Back in 1980 I was in Detroit on the convention floor when candidate Reagan accepted the Republican nomination. It was a great experience. I went with a group of South Dakota college Republicans, heading to Detroit in a van, staying at Eastern Michigan University and being bused downtown each day. We got to meet a lot of “big names,” I got some close up pictures of people like Reagan and Dole. We met a young Ted Koppel, whose “Nightline” show was only a year old (thanks to the Iranian crisis — the hostages were still being held at the Tehran embassy).
The best experience was when the Reagan people snuck dozens of us onto the floor to cheer Reagan’s speech, even though we didn’t have credentials. Reagan’s people always understood image, and lots of cheering young people would look good for the cameras. One security guard pointedly grabbed my badge and looked – clearly I didn’t belong there. I ignored him, and went on waving my sign. Back stage Illinois Senator Chuck Percy offered one of us a beer; it was fun (though I didn’t stick with the GOP).
Reagan’s charisma was real, and his speech was not about how bad Carter supposedly was, or the troubles the country faced in 1980. Under the banner “Together A New Beginning” it was about what America could accomplish and how. It was optimistic, inspiring, and positive. Most importantly, it was forward looking.
Same with Clinton in 1992 – “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow…don’t you look back” – or Barack Obama in 2008, “change we can believe in.” The Republican field lacks that kind of theme. Talk is of American in decline, economic malaise, and various epithets hurled at “Obamacare.” When there is a vision it’s nostalgic – a yearning for what things were like in the past, a desire to “take back” America.
Relatedly, the Republican message borders on being anachronistic — out of date. A huge block of voters aged 18 to 30 have virtually no personal memory of the Cold War, yet Republican themes often slide into the ideological framework of that era. Talk of ‘socialism’ speaks only to the small subset of the population, and most of those already vote Republican. Rick Santorum’s social conservatism is even more outdated, harkening back to Jerry Falwell and the so-called ‘moral majority’ of the 80s.
There are many GOP-leaning independents who are not Republican precisely because of the religious conservatives. Moreover, there aren’t that many ‘evangelicals’ in swing states. Most of them live in states already solidly Republican.
The bottom line: the Republicans are unlikely to mount a serious threat to President Obama unless the economy falters again or something fundamentally changes the race. In fact, despite the 2010 off year victory, the Republican party risks increasing weakness if they don’t retool their message for the 21st Century.
First, they need to jettison 20th Century ideological rhetoric and embrace the reality of needing a message for the future. The Cold War is long past. Harsh red meat negativity speaks only to a GOP base already likely to vote Republican. Yes, it can motivate them, but if it becomes the message sent to independents and swing voters it’ll help the Democrats.
Ironically, Republicans seem to be ignoring one man who was on track to forging that new message: George W. Bush. As much as they supported him during the Iraq war, they now reject his notion of “compassionate conservatism” and the idea of being a “uniter” rather than a divider. Compassion is now looked at as weakness by many in the GOP, and division is good if you define the other side as dangerous socialists! President Bush also realized that the GOP needed to be inclusive of minorities, supporting efforts at immigration reform led by Senator John McCain that the conservative wing of the GOP thwarted.
Most importantly, President Bush’s notion of the “ownership society” had a lot of potential appeal. At the very least, it didn’t simply regurgitate tired slogans and bland labels. One wonders how different political discourse would be if President Bush hadn’t gotten into the Iraq fiasco!
To be sure, despite my presence at Detroit in 1980 I’m not a Republican. I believe President Obama is a good President and should be re-elected. But American politics is strongest when the two parties each have positive yet different visions of the future. The Republicans need someone who transcends the pettiness of recent election cycles, much like Obama has. They need someone who can talk in rhetoric comfortable to Democrats, just like Obama’s talk of free enterprise, markets, personal responsibility and initiative in the state of the union address echoed typical GOP themes.
To be sure, I think both parties still need to retool their messages for the new century and new generation. But while Obama’s state of the union address emphasized Americans coming together and accomplishing great things, the Republican vision remains fuzzy and negative. That’s not a way to win elections.