Last week you answered a good one: Did Bush break America? In the wake of Arlen Specter's flight to the Democratic Party, I think you need to field a somewhat tougher query: Did Bush break the Republican Party? I ask as a social liberal who has, nevertheless, sometimes voted for Republicans. It's hard not to feel that the Karl Rove strategy of firing up the base has left a Republican Party that is now nothing but a fired-up base. How does your party win back a voter like me ... someone who values pragmatism above ideology?
Hello, again. Last week's column provoked a robust debate, and I thought a number of you made some interesting comments. I wish I could answer them all, but there is only so much bandwidth available, you know? So let me get to this week's question.
Taking the Bush issue first, I think it is fair to say that Bush left the Republican Party in far worse shape than it was when he entered the White House.
Some of that is bad luck, some of it results from bad planning and, frankly, some of it comes about as a result of distortions of his presidential record put forward by the Democrats and promulgated by the media — which pushed voters in the center away from Bush.
I know that many of you will seize on that last part as indicative of sour grapes on the part of conservatives, but we do recognize that when you're president of the United States, it's part of the job. I only hope you can recognize that it happens to be true.
I will say — and remember that Joe is asking a conservative to defend the Republican Party (and they are not the same thing) — that Bush is not the only one responsible for the electoral misfortunes of the GOP. The party leadership in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, shares in the blame. Elected on a reform platform in 1994, by the middle of this decade they had became more concerned, one pollster recently told me, "with ruling rather than governing." And I think the party leadership — Bush and the Congress — neglected to provide much of an agenda that was worth voting for after the 2006 election.
Come 2008, you had a situation where the country was tired after eight years of Bush, Obama was offering "change," and McCain was offering, well, nothing. And that leads me into the second half of Joe's question, the part about winning back pragmatic voters who are more concerned with results than with ideology.
If the answer was simply to field candidates who were more moderate, McCain — who still probably would have lost — would have turned in a much better performance than he did. And if McCain had run better, that likely would have translated into fewer GOP defeats in the Northeast and Midwest and would have held the Democrats to about 55 or 56 votes in the U.S. Senate. So simply being more moderate, being more like Democrats — as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Republicans should be this week — is not the answer.
I believe that the answer to winning back voters like Joe is for the GOP to provide effective solutions to the problems facing the country, solutions that have their roots in conservative principles.
America remains a center-right country. Its economic values are still based on the values of the capitalist system. And our social values are equally center-right, as could be seen as so many people rose to the defense of Miss California, Carrie Prejean, after she stated her opposition to same-sex marriage in the Miss USA pageant. She may have lost the crown, but I think she won the country.
Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress have offered ways to solve the problems most Americans say are foremost on their minds, like healthcare and the collapse of the financial system. So the American people have been willing to go along, because they have not been presented with viable alternatives, or because what alternatives are out there have not made it to the forefront of the debate.
The polling data reflects this. Numbers out this week from the firm Public Opinion Strategies — and reflected in other surveys I've seen — show that while Obama remains personally very popular, his agenda has been gradually but steadily losing support. But his personal popularity is not enough to keep things moving his way over the long term; at least I don't think it can, because the level of change he is pushing as he goes about "the work of remaking America" is so dramatic. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote this week in a column marking the end of Obama's first 100 days, "Everything from his economic policy to his energy policy to his just-announced science policy, President Obama has successfully moved the country from a traditional American model of entrepreneurship and private initiative to a European model of regulation and government control."
What I know about the country tells me that voters like Joe, who make a point of voting for the person, not the party, and who have a serious internal need to be seen as "thinkers" — and who make up a goodly portion of the political center — are already starting to drift away from Obama and his agenda.
When they reach the point where they are up for grabs, the Republicans will have to have prepared an agenda of effective solutions based on our collective understanding of the real world so that they can attract voters like Joe back into their coalition.
Now, speaking as a conservative, I am hopeful that the issues upon which the Republicans will make their stand will be taxes, spending, the huge increase in federal debt as a percentage of GDP, revitalization of the economy, expanding access to healthcare without compromising its quality, maintaining a strong national defense and providing more parents — particularly those in the inner city and those who are economically disadvantaged — with some form of scholarships to make it easier for them to get their children out of failing public schools and into successful private schools where they can learn and they can achieve.
If the GOP can come up with a persuasive agenda on the economy, on healthcare and on education, I think it has more than a fair shot at winning back the "Joe voters" once they become dissatisfied with the left-leaning overreach of Obama and the Democrats.
I hope that helps.