It’s the common wisdom of Washington’s allegedly “smart” crowd that Republicans need to reach out. They need to broaden their appeal. They need to show how nice, how tolerant they are. They need to work some political correctness into their message, or they’ll never overcome the otherwise unconquerable “math” of the Electoral College.
And the purveyors of the common wisdom think they have come up with something new. But it’s the same thing they say every election cycle.
And they’re wrong every election cycle, because what has carried a candidate to victory in practically every presidential election since 1980 is ideology, or at least, the appearance of an ideology. If Republicans reject conservatism in 2016, they risk needless defeat yet again.
Enthralled by their databases and drinking the Kool-Aid of the rest of the Beltway crowd, the Washington hands don’t understand what really animates American voters.
It is not any specific poll-tested position. It is, rather, the sense that a candidate stands for something, that he or she have a philosophy, a theory of politics and life.
What has carried a candidate to victory in practically every presidential election since 1980 is ideology, or at least, the appearance of an ideology.
Let’s take a look at who has won every election since Ronald Reagan shocked the sensibilities of the smart people in 1980. Reagan’s nomination by the GOP was viewed by then-President Jimmy Carter’s camp as a gift that fell out of heaven. Reagan was too conservative to ever take up residence in the White House and would be sent to the Home for Defeated Ideologues to live out his days with Barry Goldwater.
And yet Reagan trounced Carter and then won 49 states in 1984 without ever apologizing for his conservatism.
Let’s skip George H.W. Bush for a moment and consider Bill Clinton. While often viewed as a “moderate” Democrat, it is increasingly forgotten that Clinton offered his ideas as a philosophy, calling himself a “New Democrat” pursuing a “Third Way” toward prosperity and justice. The idea was that government would continue to provide benefits, but that it could be limited and recipients had to in some way earn it.
He defeated the hapless Bush, extinguishing his “thousand points of light,” or whatever it was he had that passed for an idea, and then in 1996 swatted away the ideologically bereft Capitol Hill dealmaker Bob Dole.
George W. Bush turned the “Third Way” on its head, pledging to limit government but provide some benefits, packaging the idea as “compassionate conservatism.” Never mind that this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of conservatism, which is the most compassionate of the ideologies, even if it sometimes administers a dose tough medicine in the short run. It sounded like Bush was some serious new type of conservative.
Conservatism is the most compassionate of the ideologies, even if it sometimes administers a dose tough medicine in the short run.
While he took some pains to hide it in 2008, no one every really doubted that “spread the wealth around” Barack Obama was a left-wing ideologue who wanted to go about “fundamentally transforming” America. His campaigns confounded ideologically impure Hillary Clinton and then his successive moderate GOP opponents — John McCain and Mitt Romney — by digging down into the Democratic base and unearthing every last liberal vote.
It’s true, George H.W. Bush won in 1988 possessing no particular set of organized thoughts. But, as the vice president to a stupendously successful president, Bush was really running for Reagan’s third term, and he vanquished someone dryly pledging “competence,” Michael Dukakis.
Having nominated a couple of nice guys who finished last in 2008 and 2012, the cognoscenti are again counseling Republicans to select a person of moderation and supposed broad appeal, someone without the sharp edges of a conservative ideology. For example, another Bush, this one a man named Jeb.
But America is not the country these operatives think it is. With their micro-analyses and trend charts, they are tapping sap from individual trees while missing the larger forest.
Americans, unlike people in most other nations, are not bound by race and ancestry. They are assembled out of many into one by ideas. And it is ideas that Americans look for in their candidates.
Republicans are threatening to focus-group themselves into extinction. A candidate who can articulate a conservative philosophy and then, with some charisma and forcefulness, explain and sell it to voters, will win the nomination and defeat Hillary Clinton and her assortment of poll-tested, carefully selected slogans.
This piece first appeared in LifeZette.