In 1960, Barry Goldwater published The Conscience of a Conservative. In it, he noted
Conservatism is not an economic theory, though it has economic implications. The shoe is precisely on the other foot: it is Socialism that subordinates all other considerations to man’s material well-being. It is Conservatism that puts material things in their proper place — that has a structured view of the human being and of human society, in which economics plays only a subsidiary role.
The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature.
Fifty-three years later that remains a constant. Unfortunately for conservatives, much of the hand-wringing over paths forward to victory involve haggling over taxes and balanced budgets and spending and debt to GDP ratios, etc.
The choice for the Republican Party is whether to invest more in the 2010 strategy of this populist strain, to refine it and connect more policy proposals to it … or to embark on an effort to restore the party’s standing as the adult in the room – the competent, clean cut, good-government technocracy that sees the chief appeal of Republican politicians as combining agencies and seeking out efficiencies rather than rolling back government power and draining bureaucratic swamps. The GOP swung back to this technocratic approach on a national scale in 2012, and let’s just say the electoral results left much to be desired.
The budgetary and economic wonkery only gets the GOP so far and that isn’t far enough to victory.
In truth, I think it will take a magnetic personality to pull the GOP out of the gutter. We live in an age of personality politics. But that personality will have to have a message that resonates with the American public. What resonates right now with the American public is a deep-seated distrust of government. Any Republican way forward must capitalize on this. In other words, the faces in Washington who can play the role are very limited to people like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and — if immigration can go away as an issue and the base forgives him — Marco Rubio.
The message to seize on is pretty straight forward. Under Republican and Democrat policies in Washington, particularly accelerated in the past five years, the United States meritocracy has given way to an aristocracy.
Only those of means can get ahead. Increasingly, they view their role as making life comfortable for the less well off instead of enabling the less well off to become well off. Wall Street, banks, major corporations, politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and the rich are the only ones who can prosper because they are the only ones who can either navigate the system or afford to pay others who can figure out how to navigate the system.
For the rest of Americans, from small business to the middle class, the only path is one of dependence on a governmental structure too byzantine to figure out and, should one be smart enough to figure out, too costly through litigation, regulation, and complication to navigate through.
An America where, as Lincoln said, every man can make himself, is replaced by an America where men are made by how the government takes cares of their individual circumstances. Students are no longer trained to be creative, entrepreneurial citizens, but to be workers for others. The self-employed are encumbered to the point of needing to be employees of others. The nuclear family is disincentivized and destabilized.
The America where one could work hard and get ahead is less and less possible because Democrats wish to force us all onto a safety net on which all are entangled, ensnared, and punished if we escape. Republicans, for fear of being disliked, would rather nibble at numbers than paint a picture of a better America for everyone.
Just one fact worth noting: under the present system, enabled by Republican and Democrat alike, a single mother on $29,000.00 a year and government benefits would have to get to $60,000.00 in salary to make it worth her getting off the safety net. This is a bipartisan construct, but one only an outsider conservative can build a campaign around fixing to the betterment of the single mom and everyone else.
But, to begin, the Republicans must be able to relate. With distrust in government at an all time high, a relatable Republican is probably going to be a guy who hates the status quo, not one who talks Washington wonkspeak.
The Republican Party needs to understand that shrinking its policy aims to more modest solutions is not going to be rewarded by the electorate. Yes, they need to tailor their message better and find policy wedges which peel off chunks of the Democratic base (winning political strategy is built on an understanding that every drama needs a hero, a martyr, and a villain). But what’s truly essential is that the party leadership rid themselves of the notion that politeness, great hair, and reform for efficiency’s sake is a ballot box winner, and understand instead that politicians who can connect with the people and deliver on their limited government promises – not ones who back away from them under pressure – represent the path forward.