The election has been over long enough that grieving has given way to autopsy, the search for the electoral disease that killed Romney’s once promising campaign. Amidst all the griping and recrimination, one pernicious narrative keeps surfacing: if conservatives are to make any gains with the changing landscape of American voters, they have to dial down conservatism, and shuffle a few steps to the left. On this view, the problem is that conservative thinking has, at least in some measure, been eclipsed by the march of modernity.
Unsurprisingly, this is a story being told enthusiastically by the Left itself, particularly its emissaries in the media, and conservatives have been thoughtlessly acquiescing. But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the core principles of conservatism not only remain substantively tenable, but also widely appealing, if only presented with some modicum of communicative savvy and conviction.
Consider a few exit polls. Despite choosing the Leviathan-Loving Party, 53% of Americans still think the government is doing too much, illegitimately encroaching upon the private sector. Despite choosing the party that necessarily promotes illicit patronage and economic cronyism, 85% of voters worry about government corruption. Despite choosing the party that has manacled our economy’s natural vibrancy with debt and paralyzing regulation, 77% consider themselves worse off. Bitter about the partisan press? So is 77% of the electorate.
So despite being the obvious target of a politically tendentious media, and philosophically committed to limited government, and by extension, limited opportunities for corruption, the GOP still suffered a trouncing.
It’s not the message but the messenger that proved unlovable: it’s impossible to incompetently promise to deliver competence, to simply decree by fiat that you are managerially superior. Romney’s campaign was poorly run from the start, and those conspicuous missteps read like portents of a failure of future executive leadership.
But even more importantly, Romney failed to compelling articulate what precisely constitutes the party platform, allowing Obama’s camp to fill in the blanks. And so what should have been a referendum on Obama’s bungling of the the economic recovery that never was became an endless indictment of conservative antiquation. By the time the Democrats were done with him, Romney had been transformed, meaning scurrilously disfigured, into a misogynistic bigot ready to rob us all of our economic safety nets in a time of dire need and our hard won rights in a time of insecurity.
It is reasonable to be resentful of the millions of women who ignorantly, even ignominiously, bought the absurd palaver about the predatory hunt for their reproductive rights. That was pure fiction, conjured out of some toxic brew of desperation and dishonesty, with a dash of real cunning. But I can’t remember Romney ever directly countering these obloquies, exposing them for the fantasies they are. Nor can I remember him taking the opportunity to draw attention to Obama’s genuine radicalism on the issue, in particular his voting record on partial-birth abortion. He gave a real winning issue away, for fear that he might actually have to articulate a socially conservative view. But on this score, most of the country is socially conservative!
The current debate regarding the now highly sought after Latino vote is another good example. Of course, it is true that clumsy posturing and heavy-handedness on immigration has soured Hispanics to the GOP. However, they are also frustrated that the DNC has essentially abandoned them on this point. And I refuse to believe that the Latino community is simply tone deaf to some reasonable compromise on immigration that starts with border security and ends with something that stops short of simplistic amnesty. The prevailing view seems to be this: let’s match the DNC in pandering to them, let’s challenge their monopoly on craven identity politics.
The other avenue, woefully untraveled, is to explain the many ways the GOP is the natural political home for Latinos: social-religious conservatism, abortion, same sex marriage, small business entrepreneurialism, and school choice. There is something chillingly unromantic about the Democrat view that thinks immigrants risk so much to come here for welfare as their reward, to find themselves eternally isolated into special interest enclaves versus enjoying the benefits of full assimilation. It is a dispiriting interpretation of their commitment to American citizenship.
This is the principal problem with the Democratic platform. It’s not merely that they have recklessly sliced the electorate into so many insular and inevitably warring slivers that they will never be able to satisfy all of them, or achieve some semblance of doctrinal unity (think of Madison’s “multiplicity of factions” on whatever Lance Armstrong was taking). Or that our demographic destiny, more old needing financial assistance and fewer young working to provide it, dooms their macroeconomic model to a future that mimics the European present. The real problem is that, even in its most soaring iteration, their message is a gloomy and uninspiring one, that champions weary dependency and cynical entitlement. Even their frequent appeals to compassion fail to ennoble since they still amount to an abdication of true charitableness, an outsourcing of the giving of alms to centralized bureaucrats.
At its best, the conservative message is one of hope and personal freedom in the happy service of family, country, and God. I have no recollection of any of the GOP leaders, Romney or otherwise, speaking confidently of this vision in a way that compelled me, that deeply moved me to believe they had earned the right to be its stewards. We are entitled to be resentful that so many Americans were so easily taken in by Obama’s transparent deceit, as long as we own our complicity in failing to educate them otherwise and to deserve, not merely demand, their trust.
Ivan Kenneally is Editor in Chief of the Daily Witness.