The path back for Republicans, and for conservatives more broadly, is as much cultural as it is tactical. Tactically, they need better candidates, and younger, more diverse people at all levels: political consultants, field operatives, grassroots volunteers. But to attract organic support from young people, women and minorities and continue harvesting new faces, conservatism needs an attitude adjustment: get hungry, get humble, and get to know more people who aren't like you.
A cultural shift in the GOP -- more youth and more real relationships with people outside the traditional conservative demographic -- will go a long way toward fixing the party's other big problem: the idea that you can persuade people by talking at them, and not with them.
AEI scholar Henry Olsen showed an odd cartoon short, in which a few conservatives try to figure out how to appeal to women. The point, Olsen explained to the largely white audience of about 50 or 60 people, was that the men in the cartoon kept talking over the one woman in their group.
"What we saw in the video is the inability to listen. The video started off with six guys and one women trying to design a product for women, and none of them would let her talk," Olsen said. "The Republican Party has for too long talked at people rather than spoken with people. And I think that is one of the main sources of the disconnect."
That insight stood out as I spoke to key members of the Obama campaign's senior staff in the following days. "Listening" to prospective voters had been a core value of the Obama campaign's ethic -- managers listened to field staff and volunteers, and trained them, in turn, to listen to the folks in their neighborhoods who were possible supporters.
"The biggest thing is listening and not just barking at [voters]. People don't want to know our 10 point plan," Jeremy Bird, the 34-year-old organizer who oversaw the Obama campaign's field operation, told me. "They want to know that we're listening to them, and that last time we talked to them, and they told us their son was an Iraq war vet, we listened to that and therefore we're going to talk to them about that and not come at them like political marketers."
Now's the time to put a dagger 'tween their teeth, wave a sword, grab a rope and swing aboard the enemy's galleon. Take the president's issues, steal them—they never belonged to him, they're yours!
In political terms this means: Reorient yourselves. Declare for Main Street over Wall Street, stand for the little guy against the big interests. And move. Don't wait for the bill, declare the sentiments of your corner..
Really, it's pirate time.
Examples of what might be done:
If you are conservative you are skeptical of concentrated power. You know the bullying and bossism it can lead to. Republicans should go to the populist right on the issue of bank breakup. Too big to fail is too big to continue. The megabanks have too much power in Washington and too much weight within the financial system. People think the GOP is for the bankers. The GOP should upend this assumption. In this case good policy is good politics.
If you are a conservative you're supposed to be for just treatment of the individual over the demands of concentrated elites. Every individual in America making $400,000 a year or more just got a tax hike that was a blow to the gut. Regular working people are seeing their payroll deductions increase. But private-equity partners who make billions enjoy more favorable tax treatment. Their income is treated for tax purposes as a capital gain, so they're taxed at far lower rates. This is called the carried interest exemption, and everybody knows it's a big con.
The Republican Party should come out against it in a big way. Let the real rich pay the same percentage the not-actually-rich-but-formally-declared-rich are paying. If the Republicans did this they'd actually be joining the winning side, because carried interest will not survive the new era. If congressional Republicans care about their party they'll want it to get credit for fairness, as opposed to the usual blame for being lackeys of the rich.She also calls for action on gun control and immigration, which would be much tougher sells to grassroots Republicans.