All the hand-wringing and soul searching going on in the conservative movement boils down to one fundamental question: Are we bad at selling our policies, or are the policies themselves the problem? This distinction is critical and leads to radically different prescriptions. If the issue is merely in the marketing, then the damage the party sustained a month ago is mostly cosmetic and can be quickly repaired with better messaging and candidates. The alternative, however, calls for rethinking foundational principles -- and is much more painful.
John Podhoretz and Matt Lewis made the cases for the "just politics" camp in the context of the "fiscal cliff" debate. Democrats, they argue, have deftly outmaneuvered Republicans into spending all their time defending unpopular things that are peripheral to core conservative values. Podhoretz writes in the New York Post that even though Republicans have the superior policy on the Bush tax cuts and the need to cut entitlements, they have the inferior “messaging” and have ended up the “the eat-your-vegetables-and-shut-up party” -- noble and responsible, but doomed.
Lewis, who is generally one of the most fair and incisive conservative columnists out there, goes even further. “Democrats have brilliantly outmaneuvered Republicans into a position where they are spending the vast majority of their time defending (what seems to many like) the indefensible,” he writes. For example, “Rather than talking about defending the right to life, Republicans spent an inordinate amount of time in 2012 talking about whether a woman who was raped should be allowed to have an abortion.”
While it’s hard to imagine Democrats, of all people, “brilliantly outmaneuver[ing]” anyone, their assumption seems to be this: If the key ideological conflicts of the day were fought in pitched battles on level playing fields, Republicans would win. So is this correct?
Let’s take the example Lewis brings up of abortion and rape. As it turns out, most Americans favor abortion rights. An NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll from late October asked respondents if they would be more likely to vote for a pro-life or pro-choice candidate. They found that 40 percent chose the pro-choice candidate. Just 28 percent chose the pro-life candidate, and 31 percent said it wouldn’t make a difference. A CBS poll from September asked respondents for their own views on abortion. The plurality -- 42 percent -- said it should be “generally available,” 35 percent said “available under stricter limits,” and just 20 percent said it should not be permitted at all.
How about taxes and spending? Even if we set aside the overwhelming support Americans give to raising taxes on the wealthy, they favor a balanced approach that includes spending cuts but also tax hikes, which Republicans generally oppose. A November CNN poll asked if respondents favor “spending cuts only” as a means to reduce the deficit -- just 29 percent said yes. Meanwhile 67 percent wanted “spending cuts and tax increases.” A USA Today poll from the same month found 10 percent favored spending cuts only; 30 percent favored mostly spending cuts, and 45 percent favored a mixture of both.
Social safety net? A National Journal poll from early this month listed government programs and asked them how much should be cut from each, from “a lot” to “not at all.” Here were the numbers who said "not at all" for each program: Social Security (77 percent), Medicare (79 percent), food stamps and housing vouchers (49 percent) and Medicaid (63 percent).
One place Republicans do have the edge is on defense spending. The edge is narrow and varies depending on the question, but more Americans oppose military cuts than favor them.
How about issues beyond the fiscal cliff? On energy and climate change, 65 percent favor “imposing mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases,” and 69 percent support "spending more government money on developing solar and wind power” (of Solyndra fame), according to a Gallup poll from earlier this year. Just 34 percent say the government should prioritize expanded oil and gas production.
On hot-button social issues, 57 percent support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and 51 percent support marriage equality for gays and lesbians, according to a Washington Post poll. There’s also strong support for the DREAM Act, which Mitt Romney vowed to veto on the campaign trail, and even Republicans support Sen. Marco Rubio’s watered-down version.
And on guns, an issue Lewis said Republicans have already "won," 57 percent of Americans support banning semi-automatic assault weapons. Sixty percent support banning the sale or possession of high-capacity magazines, and a narrow plurality said there should be “major restrictions” on gun ownership, as opposed to “minor” ones, according to a CNN poll from August. These were all policies that Republicans said would be non-starters when they were introduced following the shooting in Aurora, Colo., this year. A Washington Post poll from July asked Americans if they favor stronger or weak gun control legislation in general, and found the answer to be 51-47 percent in favor of stricter rules.
This list is hardly comprehensive, but it should give conservatives pause before assuming that new window dressing and better field operations alone will solve their problems. Many of these core policies are simply unpopular with the American people, and they shouldn’t deny that if they hope to win again.
Democrats had a similar experience in the early 1990s and fundamentally revamped not just the image, but the agenda of their party -- and went on to win the White House again for the first time in over a decade.