April 25, 2009
The problem with RepublicansBy Howard Underwood
This past election showed that Republicans in America are in trouble. The culprit may simply be the public's fatigue with an eight year Republican administration (not to mention the fact that McCain ran a singularly inept campaign). President Obama's startling ascendancy, though, a career trajectory that took place despite the absence of any meaningful resume and the presence of some very eyebrow-raising associates, indicates that the Republican Party's problems run deeper than fatigue and campaign ineptitude.
So let's start with a question: When was the last time America had more registered Republicans than registered Democrats? 1955? 1928? I don't know the answer, but I doubt it's within most of our lifetimes. The truth is we are a minority party and have been for many years. We have only managed to compete at all because we vote in greater percentages than the Democrats do.
Even worse, all of the demographics are against us. Immigration policy is being relaxed and most immigrants (perhaps because of identity politics rather than because of political and social values) register as Democrats. The number of people dependent on the government is growing rapidly and those dependent on the state are more often Democrats. The teachers and administrators in our school systems also hew Left, and they pass those values on to the students under their tutelage.
In short, the numbers show that, as a general matter, Republicans are selling a message that America isn't buying. Our task, therefore, is both to re-frame the conservative message without sacrificing our principles and to find a better way to market that clarified message. One thing is certain: We cannot out-Democrat the Democrats. We cannot compete with their vision of the Government as the solution to all of our problems. We must provide America with our own vision.
We must be bold. We must redefine Republicanism in America. We must challenge America to be great again.
Our change must begin internally. One unfortunate by-product of our perpetual minority status is that we have become defensive. We are ashamed to be called Republicans. We are constantly explaining that we aren't really captains of industry interested only in profits and wealth. We are constantly defending ourselves. So, the first change we must make is to ourselves. We must regain our pride in being Republicans.
Although there's always some tension in the big Republican tent over certain issues (was the DHS report an insult or not?), the fact remains that Republicans can articulate certain core principles, most of which revolve around a smaller, federal government, and greater individual freedom. Not only are these core Republican principles, they also represent common-sense, core American values.
The problem for Republicans appears to be conveying those principles to the American people. Part of the problem seems to be that, because the members of the news and entertainment media are overwhelmingly Democratic, they use their outsized soap boxes to paint Republicans as mean-spirited, racist, and greedy. In a media saturated world, these messages are both overt and subliminal, and they taint the Republican brand.
By focusing on name-calling and character slurs, Democrats can avoid the issues. Indeed, as many of us on the Right have already noticed, if you can get individual Americans to drill down on issues without dragging in labels, Americans still tend to be conservative in their belief systems.
The Obama campaign certainly noticed that innate conservativism. While Obama's policies periodically, and embarrassingly, leaked out before November 4 (only to burst into full flower after his inauguration), during the campaign itself he actually tried to hide most of those policies. Instead, he won with the American people using empty slogans: "Hope." "Change." "Hope and Change." "We are the Change." Obama successfully abandoned substance and won convincingly with a content-free message.
One of the lessons, therefore, that Republicans need to take away from the last campaign is the necessity, in the modern era, of making people feel good and hopeful about being affiliated with Republicans. A good way to start -- and start now -- is with a series of one-minute ads. Each ad would feature a real life Republican success story.
For example, you could have an ad focusing on the black man who escaped the slums, went to school, started his own business and is now a successful (and Republican) businessman. Another ad would focus on the Hispanic woman who came to America as an illegal immigrant, eventually became legal and now is a successful (and Republican) worker. Other ads might highlight the Republican social worker who, inspired by her religion, has done wonderful things to make her community better, or who has found homes for hundreds of orphans; the Republican farmer who runs the same family farm his father before him ran, who meets a payroll of workers and who has to be an expert in everything from equal opportunity laws to crop rotations; and the Republican fellow who was handy with a wrench, went to work fixing cars and now has a shop of his own with seven employees and a thriving customer base. Given American vitality, and the true diversity of the Republican Party, the possibilities are endless.
The only thing necessary to tie each ad together would be the ending tag line: "I'm [insert name here]. And I'm proud to be a Republican."
Along with this advertising program, the Republican National Committee should distribute "Proud to be a Republican" buttons, banners and bumper stickers and create a "Proud to be a Republican" website on which Republicans can come together to, among other things, share their stories and their ideas for local Republican events.
Those events will be critically important. Local Republicans must become active in their communities through scheduled events. Republicans must act as Republicans: to clean up a run-down park; set up a station in the library to help folks with their taxes; sponsor a concert at a retirement home; do a fund-raiser to save an after school chess program; or any other activity that would be visible and would benefit the local community. At each of these very public events, let it be known that the event is sponsored by local Republicans and make sure everyone wears "Proud to be a Republican" buttons. Aside from that, the activities should be completely non-partisan. Don't recruit or talk about Republicanism unless asked about it. The goal is that, when people think of Republicans, they won't think of a greedy businessman but, instead, will think of the gal down the street who helped clean up the community or established an after-school day care program.
Refining the conservative message
Those are practical things. We also have to work to reignite public pride in our strengths, not our weaknesses. Democrats appeal to the worst that is in us -- greed, victim-hood, dependency. Republicans appeal to the best that is in us -- personal responsibility, hard work, accomplishment. This is both our curse (because it is very hard to convince people not to take the easy way out by blaming others and becoming dependent on others) and our greatest strength. The key, again, is pride. One can be happy blaming others for ones own failures and can be happy in the cradle to grave care of the welfare state. But one cannot be proud when one has never done anything to be proud of. One cannot be proud to be a ward of the state.
Assuming Americans aren't so far gone as to be beyond pride (in which case our task is hopeless anyway), we can turn this to our advantage. We probably can't say what we really need to say -- "Grow Up America" -- because it would be very hard to sell, but we can say "Wake Up America (or "Stand Up America") -- And Take Back Your Country" We can challenge Americans to re-earn respect for themselves and for their nation. Democrats, with their socialist, collectivist, agenda, encourage Americans to become dependent children, wards of the state. Republicans should challenge Americans to accept responsibility and become independent adults.
This challenge will find expression in many specific positions. But in general terms, Republicans must challenge Americans and America to act with pride and maturity. America's history is one of rugged independence; Americans built this country by taking responsibility for their own actions. Americans were doers, actors, who stood or fell on their own merits. People flocked to America, the land of opportunity, for the opportunity to make their own futures, not for the opportunity to have the government take care of them.
It is hard to find ways to express this, because it represents a dramatic shift in the way people look at themselves. Large numbers of Americans have bought into the Democrat vision of identity politics. Under the Democrat vision, we are first and foremost our race, our gender, our age, our economic status, our religion, our occupation, our heritage, our whatever. In the alternative Republican vision, we are first and foremost individuals. Each of us is a member of many groups, but we are not defined by that membership. We are defined by what we do as individuals. We can do anything! We can achieve anything! We are not limited by our identities. We are limited only by our personal abilities, our imaginations, and our hard work.
We are members of one distinct group. We are Americans. Here, too, pride plays a key role. Democrats are ashamed to be Americans. When Michelle Obama said she was proud of her country for the first time in her life, she was telling the truth. Nearly Obama's first act in office was to apologize for America, a performance he's now taking around the world.
Republicans are proud of America. We are proud of what our country has accomplished, what our country stands for and what our country even today means to the world. We are still the land of opportunity. Just ask 10,000,000 illegal immigrants. We admit our country is far from perfect, but it is still the last best hope for freedom in the world.
Americans must become proud of America again, not with false, unearned pride, but with the just pride of a nation whose values and actions fully warrant pride. If we have anything to apologize for, it is that we have lost our way, forgotten those things that made us great, become too collectivist and dependent, lost our energy and our determination.
True national pride sounds jingoistic to Democrat ears, and it will sound foreign to most Americans' ears, because we haven't heard it much lately. But we cannot expect the rest of the world to respect us until we again learn to respect ourselves.
Republicans envision an America of responsible adults. An America that acts as a responsible adult in the international community. To take just one example, one that many Republican politicians seem to have forgotten, Republicans balance their personal budgets. Why? Because they would not think of living beyond their means and passing the bill on to their children. Similarly, Republican politicians should promise to balance the federal and state budgets - and then stand by those promises. We envision an America that pays its own way, one that we will be proud to hand over to our children. If that means we sacrifice in the here and now, so be it. We are adults and we will act like adults, making whatever sacrifices are needed. We will take personal responsibility for ourselves and our country.
This view of Americans as independent, responsible adults informs all Republican solutions to problems and all Republican policy positions. However, Republicans must reject completely all litmus tests. Even balancing the budget and paying off of the national debt, which I believe should be so fundamental to Republicanism as to be beyond discussion, should not be viewed as a litmus test. All Americans who accept the basic vision of Americans and America as responsible adults are welcome, no matter their disagreements on specific issues. One can be pro-abortion or anti-abortion and be a Republican. One can be a Creationist or an atheist and be a Republican. One can be pro-UN or anti-UN and be a Republican.
Most importantly, as responsible adults, we must accept each other's points of view, argue the merits of each other's positions calmly and rationally, and realize that we can support the party and its candidates without supporting every position the party takes.
With that understanding, the Republicans should have an off-year Republican convention to identify and agree on major policy positions. This would be much like the normal nominating conventions, except that the agenda would center on issue and ideas, not on people. This convention would move the party platform, often in the background in nominating conventions, front and center. Republicans would announce their alternative vision for America, and define the road to that vision.
In the end, Republicans will succeed by offering American a new vision for America. At core, Republicans believe in human beings. Republicans believe that the best way to ensure individual success is to hold individuals responsible for their actions. Republicans believe that the best way to ensure group success is to hold groups, from businesses to religions to nations, responsible for their actions. Republicans believe it is time for America to grow up. Americans are not victims. Americans are doers, achievers, people of unparalleled accomplishment. Americans are proud of what America has been, of what it is, and of what it can be. Republican values made America great. They can again. That is the vision we offer America.
Howard Underwood, an attorney, is a lifelong conservative - and proud of that fact.