Once and for all, Congressional Republicans didn’t lose the 2006 elections because of scandal. They got fired because they forgot that the purpose of a political party is to govern, not simply to get re-elected. They forgot that ideas matter.
The “power, pork, and attack” strategy, devised and executed by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) over the course of seven years, did bring scandal with it. But to interpret the 2006 loss as the result of corruption is to miss the greater point.
Simply put, voters sacked the Republicans because they perceived the GOP had done nothing to address voter problems and fundamentally misunderstood their growing concerns with cost-of-living issues. Instead of offering new ideas, Republicans continued negative attacks and tried to “out-Tip” Tip O’Neill when it came to district-by-district pork.
The problem Republicans faced then —and still face today — stems from a lack of substance behind their brand, a reliance on dogmatic ideology to define themselves rather than focusing on finding solutions to larger voter concerns on health care, energy, jobs, housing and security.
The GOP “brand problem” has led voters to believe that Republicans do not care about people, in particular the middle class. House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), whose recent GOP energy proposal is a significant step toward addressing negative voter perception, often says that Republicans have to “earn” their way back to majority status.
What does that mean? It means defining a view of the future that is compelling and possible, not defining one’s opponent. It means defining a Republican Party concerned about people, not one that says problems can’t be solved or it isn’t Washington’s job.
It means applying conservative principles to problems with the kind of intellectual vibrancy that underpinned the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions. That is the challenge facing the party in this historic election. The Republican brand problem is all about defining the future for voters — what a Republican president and Congress can do to help them.
We need a clean break from the politics of the past. We have to break from the party’s image of power for power’s sake, its image of incompetence, of a lack of purpose or caring. To prove that we are the party best able to achieve the lofty goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we have to create a modern GOP that embraces change.
That doesn’t mean abandoning conservative principles. It does mean, however, rejecting the thinking that got a right-of-center party on the wrong side of a right-of-center country. Data show the GOP label itself is a drag on the party and its candidates at all levels.
In a recent survey, we tested the Democratic message of unity and change to solve problems with a Republican message asserting that Washington is broken and needs fixing to ensure a safer, healthier, more prosperous future.
When the statements were read to voters without partisan attribution, the GOP message won by 12 points. When we attached partisan labels to the very same statements, it lost by 6 points. Clearly, the Republican Party brand is in serious trouble.
Given the products of a political party are its ideas on issues, years of running campaigns that relied on defining Democrats rather than Republican policies have weakened the GOP brand. Survey research over the past four years has shown Democrats with a huge issue-handling advantage on energy, education, health care and Social Security.
What should be even more alarming to Republicans is that research shows voters put more faith in Democrats to be more fiscally responsible and to better handle the economy, jobs and the Iraq War. Republicans hold an advantage on one issue, the war on terror, and they tie on taxes.
How did Republicans dig themselves into this hole? They simply forgot that the broader purpose behind Ronald Reagan’s and Newt Gingrich’s revolutions was to change America through ideas. When a party is more concerned about earmarks, hitting up K Street and attacking the opponent than finding conservative solutions for rising health care costs, falling home prices or high gas prices, voters will perceive its leaders as uncaring and insensitive to their needs.
Yet, despite the 2006 election debacle and despite three special election losses this year in Republican districts, a number of influential party operatives are arguing for more of the same. They advise, “Stick with the status quo; attack your opponent, bring home some bacon to brag about, spend more money. You’ll be fine.” Tell that to the three special election candidates who won’t be joining the House Republican Conference.
While Democrats face the same kind of voter discontent, they remain ahead in national polls because Republicans haven’t broken through as a viable alternative. Contrary to Democratic claims, however, voters haven’t embraced their party’s ideology over the past year. That gives Republicans an opening.
Whether the party can take advantage of the opportunity depends on whether it accepts the premise that ideas will win this election, not money or dogma, and shows that it is ready to govern. That will take a clean break from the past to modernize and create the Republican Party of the future.