It doesn’t feel like a great morning to be a Republican. But in reality, last night might have been the best thing to happen to Republicans – and, more importantly, for the conservative base of the Republican party.
Is the GOP too conservative? The left-leaning pundits like to say so, because it tacitly paints their victorious candidate as a centrist. He isn’t – Barack Obama simply ran a campaign that painted liberal ideas like government-orchestrated health care and wealth distribution as “common sense.”
But the problem for the Republican presidential candidates this time around was that they tried too hard to identify as conservative in their tight primary battles by using the word “conservative” and constantly quoting Ronald Reagan – despite the fact that every candidate had glaring non-conservative credentials. This was not only an insult to the intelligence of Republican voters, but to those waiting for the general election GOP debates were stages full of buzzword-bandying empty suits.
As a colleague of mine said the other day, Ronald Reagan didn’t call himself the “next Barry Goldwater” when he ran for president in 1980. He didn’t need to claim the conservative mantle because he had been banging the drum for decades. He had walked the walk, so he didn’t need to talk the talk. That is why conservatives worship Ronald Reagan, but today’s Republican candidates simply don’t understand Reagan’s governing philosophy – at least, not enough to break it down like Reagan did when he said famously called government the cause of, rather than a solution to, America’s problems.
It’s not time to panic yet. Four years ago, pundits were asking if the Democratic party was dead – they were painted as a party devoid of ideas that could only react to their opponents. Two years after John Kerry’s failed presidential bid, the donkey-shaped tombstone had been chiseled, the Democrats were in power and driving the agenda. So the pendulum will swing, and it can happen sooner than expected. But depsite cries about the political environment being one way or another, a saying by my old boss Morton Blackwell rings true: in politics, nothing moves unless it’s pushed.
Now is the time to push – and it isn’t going to happen in smoke-filled backrooms and it’s not going to come from political celebrities who will deliver a new platform from on high. It’s up to us, to the grassroots, to make conservative ideas mainstream again. And given the challenge of a dynamic and charismatic champion of liberalism on the national scene, the right has no choice but to elevate our game – and not wait for national GOP leaders to do so.
Reagan would be the first to say that relying on big, national institutions for change is a mistake. The online media environment today gives us our window: never have such institutions (party leadership, national media) been less relevant. But to paraphrase fellow UMass alum and former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, Ronald Reagan ain’t walking through that door.
We have our work cut out for us, but this should be fun.