Republicans have a problem. Polls suggest the public does not care for our policies and they do not trust our politicians. Hell, even a third of Republicans in a recent poll don’t like the party. Recent elections have only confirmed the obvious, leaving Republicans virtually irrelevant in Washington, D.C.
But the problem goes further than that.
In order to rebuild, Republicans need to identify the people who have something—good ideas, popularity, vision, and a good record.
Despite a wealth of opportunities to make the case for limited government and individual freedom, Republicans have found themselves with a leadership vacuum. Sure, there are plenty of Republicans mumbling the standard talking points, but few, if any, are capturing the public imagination.
That’s a problem. It’s not enough to argue that Democrats are wrong. If Republicans cannot express a compelling vision for America that actually persuades Americans that Republicans are right, then it’s hard to see how Republicans can recover.
Democrats may be wrong about important issues, but you can’t beat something with nothing.
In order to rebuild, Republicans need to identify the people who have something—good ideas, popularity, vision, and a good record. Yes, even in this discouraging decade, some of them still exist.
So who are the Republican good guys and gals? For one thing, they are the politicians we can feel good about defending, because they were principled, intellectual, or reasonable at a time when so many were not. A few who come to mind:
• Rep. Tom McClintock of California has flown the bold colors of conservatism and backed it up with an impressive command of the issues. Voters have trusted (and elected!) him because of his strong views, not in spite of them.
• Delegate Chris Saxman of Virginia hasn’t just talked about limited government, he also chairs the Cost Cutting Caucus, which works to “make government more efficient, transparent, accountable, and competitive.” What’s more, Saxman is an active participant in the new media, making his case directly to bloggers, even responding to critics online. We need more Republicans this comfortable with communicating online.
• Rob Portman of Ohio has been a congressman, U.S. trade representative, and director of the Office of Management and Budget. That’s the career path of a real policy wonk and intellectual—something the Republican Party could use more of—and he’s a 2010 Senate candidate in Ohio.
• Sarah Steelman of Missouri, once called “Sarah Palin with an economics degree,” has been unafraid to call out establishment Republicans in Missouri; she has said, “I’m not part of the good ol’ boys network, and I don’t want to be.” The GOP could use a lot more politicians with the guts to challenge the status quo. She may be a 2010 Senate candidate in Missouri.
• Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana says he won’t run for office again, but he has not shied way from staking out ground on the future of the GOP, or acknowledging of Republicans that “a lot of credibility has been forfeited on [the fiscal responsibility] score in recent years.” Incidentally, despite Obama carrying Indiana, Daniels won his 2008 race by a landslide. As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza indicated, Daniels was very competent, and voters like competence.
• Governor Bobby Jindal is a policy wonk, and he’s actually accomplishing important things in Louisiana right now. If he can continue succeeding with conservative policies in Louisiana, Jindal will be a compelling leader.
But it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to be a politician to be a good leader. Some of our leaders are going to emerge from the intellectual and opinion ranks, and we’re going to need these fresh thinkers to revitalize the Party of Ideas and expand the coalition.
Some of this new class of public intellectuals (often, bloggers) are already having an impact: Glenn Reynolds, Tyler Cowen, Megan McArdle, Eugene Volokh, Ross Douthat, and others are driving new ideas about the future of politics and the right. Let’s just hope the Republican Party will listen carefully to them.
So who else is out there plowing ground for a fertile GOP future? Who have we missed?
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-chair of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today’s rich Internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.
Jon Henke is the cofounder of TheNextRight.com.