The future of conservatism obviously depends on the quality of conservative ideas and policy proposals. But it also depends on the quality of conservative politics. To put ideas into action, you have to win elections, or as Reagan adviser Lyn Nofziger used to say, "Losers don't legislate."
Here are four suggestions for conservative politics in the years ahead. They aren't "silver bullets," or magic methods that guarantee victory. They aren't particularly original, either: rather, they are common sense among the people who actually go out and win elections. But common sense was sometimes in short supply during the 2012 campaign, so it's useful to reflect on such points.
1. You need good politicians, that is, skillful people who can appeal to general-election voters. The best example, of course, is Ronald Reagan. He had a way of getting people to like him.
The 2012 GOP finalists were not in that league. Gingrich was widely disliked before he even started running for president. Santorum could be very good, but he also took too many day trips to Crazytown. Just before the Michigan primary -- where 30 percent of Republican voters were Catholic, he said that JFK's famous speech on church and state made him want to "throw up." He lost his co-religionists to Romney. And as for Romney ... well, nobody's favorite Gilligan's Island character was Thurston Howell III.
The key here is understanding the difference between applause lines that conservatives enjoy, and the things that appeal to the general public -- which may not be the same.
2. Do not do dumb stuff. By "dumb stuff," I mean fights that you can't win and that will lead to loss of public support. The Gingrich speakership provided some prominent examples of dumb stuff. As for today, three items come to mind:
- Defaulting on the federal debt
- Shutting down large portions of the government
- Trying to impeach President Obama.
3. Reach out. It is a commonplace that the makeup of the electorate is changing, though perhaps not as abruptly as some of the 2012 commentary suggests. Hispanics and African Americans tend to be very liberal on most issues. But if conservative and Republican candidates can just improve their showings with such groups by just a few points, they can be in a much better position to win elections.
How can they do that? At regular intervals over the past 30-plus years, party organizations have announced "outreach" programs. They issue press releases, pay lots of money to consultants, and then...the whole thing fizzles out. The key is for candidates and elected officials is to show up in these communities, and to keep doing it, year after year. There will not be a big, immediate shift, but over time, conservative persistence can wear down sales resistance.
4. Talk about the issues that people care about. Conservative activists often dwell on issues that may be very important but do not move votes. Take, for instance, Benghazi. Rank-and-file voters ought to care about it, but they don't -- and if you base your campaign strategy on the assumption that they do care, you will be disappointed. Poll after poll shows that Americans care about bread-and-butter economic issues -- the kind of things that Reagan meant when he asked voters if they were better off than they were four years earlier. In election campaigns, conservatives need to keep explaining how they will improve the economy and -- this is a tough one -- address the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor.