The Conservative Challenge
by Donald Devine
Issue 215– November 14, 2012
“What Do We Do Now?” was, of course, what The Candidate Bill McKay (Robert Redford) asked his campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) when he won an upset election for U.S. Senator. No one even asked what the losing Republican (Don Porter) would do. Today, conservatives and Republicans must do a soul-searching that is based on reality and not on cinematic illusion, which is supposed to be the other side’s failing.
The immediate conservative reaction was that Gov. Mitt Romney did not run on a sufficiently conservative platform. That is difficult to argue given his campaign’s listed principles: that “liberty, opportunity, and free enterprise have led to prosperity and strength before and will do so again;” that we must “empower our citizens, and restore the foundations of our nation’s strength,” with a moral duty to uphold the sanctity of life and protect the weakest, most vulnerable and most innocent among us;” that “the mission to restore America to health begins with reducing the size of the federal government and getting our fiscal house in order,” by cutting “ federal spending and regulation, and bring much-needed reforms to Medicare and Social Security,” while working “toward balancing the budget, reducing the size and reach of the federal government, and returning power to the states and the people.” His list of specifics for his “day one” agenda was generally more conservative than that of any recent Republican nominee.*
The fall-back position from the right is that the problem was with Romney himself not being credible holding these positions given his background as a Massachusetts moderate, in conceding too much in his speeches, and in his poor campaign. In fact, the media exit polls make clear that a majority of voters did view Romney as personally unfavorable – and President Barack Obama as favorable – and the former’s campaign did not act quickly enough or strongly enough to offset the early character assassination that made him viewed so negatively. By the end, while 53% thought Obama was “in touch with people like you” only 43% thought Romney was. Obama also had the advantage of the presidency. He had a seven point advantage on handling Medicare. Hurricane Sandy was mentioned by an incredible 42% as positively influencing their vote for his handling of the matter, 17% saying it was the most important influence on their vote.
Why did the economy not unseat Obama? Perhaps the worst error of the Romney campaign was not distancing himself sufficiently from George W. Bush. The poll found that today only 38% blamed Obama for the poor economy and 53% blamed Bush. In addition, Romney’s Wall Street buddies, expecting he would win, foolishly pushed up stocks making it look like recovery might be at hand. The Romney campaign also made a great mistake making foreign policy a major issue, especially doing so at the end. While the facts of the fowl-up in the Benghazi embassy killings may have been on Romney’s side, citizens instinctively support the president in such circumstances. On election day voters gave Obama a seven point advantage on handing foreign policy.
But the problems of the 2012 election go even deeper. The electorate has changed in a fundamental way since the salad days of Ronald Reagan. Yes, as the media endlessly mention, minorities are a larger part of the electorate and if racial totals were the same as in 1980 Romney would have won on the basis of his 59% of the white vote, although more narrowly than Reagan, who won comparable percents among Hispanics in his first election. Romney also received 59% support from an aging weekly churchgoer population. But the largest demographic change has been in the family. Romney won with a 60% majority among married men and 53% among married women which would have won easily a generation ago. But Romney only received 30% among single women to Obama’s 68% and today unmarried, divorced, and separated women represent 23% of the population compared to 31% married.
There is no way conservatives can win elections if the dependent population keeps growing. It is a great paradox that the most damaging statement Romney made during the campaign was the truest, the comment that 47% did not pay taxes and so would not support a tax reduction. The election exit poll found only 35% saying no one should have their taxes increased, 47% saying those earning over $250,000 should pay more, and 13% saying every income earner should pay higher taxes. It would take a very thoughtful person who is receiving more benefits and lower income not to be in favor of higher taxes that others would pay for his benefit. The problem is that combining the later two categories suggests the key group is not 47% but 60% minus a few idealists to sum to the winning 51% Obama total for victory.
If conservatives are ever to recuperate from this very significant defeat – in a time of economic crisis when victory should have been a shoo-in – they must face several facts that must be overcome. The Republican Party will recover some day, perhaps soon, but that a competitive conservatism will survive with it is no sure thing. Here are the tough facts:
– The 47% will continue to grow. This is in spite of the fact that the exit polls showed that 51% of voters said they preferred smaller government with fewer services (among whom Romney had a 50% margin) and only 43% preferred a larger government with more services (among whom Obama had a 65% margin). Is conservatism doomed or does it have a strategy to deal with this fact? Focusing on off-year elections is only a first step.
– Decline in marriage and the family will deepen dependency further, increasing child neglect, crime, educational dysfunction, unemployment and female abuse. Civil unions are not the primary threat but the present decline of straight marriage is. Ending some barriers to family stability might help a bit but the problem is basically not solvable by government. Social issues must aim more at education and less on law. A good place to start making the private case for marriage is a recent study that proves its value for prosperity, safety and a rewarding social life http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF12C20.pdf.
– Hot anti-immigration rhetoric is incompatible with support from the growing Hispanic and Asian populations who if not wooed soon will become firmly wedded to the party of big government. It is possible to reach out without undermining important principles.
– Going to war to change the world is not popular (or possible).
– The entitlements facing bankruptcy were created by the progressives and it is their problem to reform them. Make them go first even if it hurts.
– The culture has been permanently changed by the adversarial culture’s control of Hollywood, TV, the mainstream media, and the educational system. Talk radio and a few pundits are inconsequential by comparison. Is there some way to mobilize the resources sunk into the campaign – and mostly wasted – and put them into buying or creating mass media and educational institutions?
– Given the veto, no conservative legislation will be possible for the next four years even with big victories in the 2014 Congressional elections unless Obama himself is its author. Is it possible that after he has exhausted every progressive program in failure that he has nowhere else to turn but to the market and local solutions? How can this be encouraged?
– The conservative movement created in the nineteen fifties that flowered with the election of Ronald Reagan is exhausted and must be reconstituted intellectually to successfully deal with these problems. What cannot change is the tried and true Reagan fusionist formula of using libertarian means to achieve traditionalist ends in a limited-government, federalist society.
Any truly conservative movement must be based on reality. It understands unfortunate things happen. Before Sandy – a totally unpredictable and impossible to avoid hurricane – a sick economy was on its way to sinking the Obama presidency. As the storm arrived, everyone was tuned in to the weather. The mainstream media had its audience, it was in love with the president, and the situation was ideal to produce progressive theater. A terrible event was taking place and only the Great Father in Washington was there to hold our hands and comfort us, especially those not in the path of the storm. That Republican Governor Chris Christie led the hosannas to the great leader made bipartisanship a perfect stage event to showcase the essential progressive myth that government can solve all problems if we all just work together. It was a sitcom that even liberal columnist Ruth Marcus conceded was critical in convincing 17% of the public to vote for Mr. Obama and his party.
Unfortunately for the president, making nice does not solve real problems. His majority is very tenuous. If he perseveres in his left-leaning solutions to the nation’s problems, he will fail. If he turns right, there may be hope. Miracles are possible. After passing their first serious and very unpopular austerity program through the Greek legislature the day following the U.S. election, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras apologized for the tough measures necessary but told his people it simply was essential to reject the country’s “failed socialist model” and move toward an “entrepreneurial society.”
If it is possible in Greece, it is possible anywhere. But do not count on it: conservatives have to get their act together in any event.
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.
*Note: Romney’s first day agenda if he were to be elected president was:
– submit a five point jobs package to Congress and demand that the legislature act on them in 30 days: Reduce the corporate income tax rate to 25 percent, Reinstate the president’s Trade Promotion Authority to facilitate negotiation of new trade agreements, Explore opening more land for drilling, Look at taking federal programs and returning responsibility to the states, Cut non-security discretionary spending in the federal budget by 5 percent;
– repeal Obamacare and work with Congress for an early replacement;
– have a comprehensive program on undocumented immigration ready to go and drop the immigration lawsuit against Arizona;
– proclaim China as a currency manipulator and reverse the Mexico City executive order on abortion;
– repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that workers are paid more expensive “prevailing” wages on public works projects;
– construct the Keystone XL pipeline and sign an executive order on drilling;
– sign an executive order immediately eliminating Obama-era regulations that “unduly burden the economy or job creation.”