David Frum

11.16.12

Why the GOP Lost, Part (Insert Number Here)

There's a ton of wisdom in Ramesh Ponnuru's latest at National Review.

First, some helpful background on what built winning coalitions for the GOP in the past.

The Democrats lost majority status in 1968 — they would lose five of six presidential elections from that year through 1988, and win one by a hair — but Republicans did not gain it. They never held the House and rarely held the Senate during that streak of presidential wins. Why didn’t Republicans become the dominant party then? It wasn’t because of foreign policy: That boosted them during the second half of the Cold War, when the Democrats became the relatively dovish party. That’s a big reason Republicans did better at the presidential than at the congressional level. It wasn’t because of social issues: The hippies and McGovernites helped make Republicans the party of middle-class values.

What they did not do is make the Republicans the party of middle-class economic interests. Most Americans associated the party with big business and the country club, and did not agree with its impulses on the minimum wage, entitlement programs, and other forms of government activism designed to protect ordinary people from cold markets. Americans came to be skeptical of government activism mainly when they thought it was undermining middle-class values (as they thought welfare undermined the work ethic). And even when voters thought Republicans were better managers of the economy in general, they thought the GOP looked out for the rich rather than the common man.

Then, a succinct slaying of the awful "We Built That" meme which so awkwardly defined the convention in Tampa. Shorter Ponnuru: most people have jobs, not businesses.

The Republican story about how societies prosper — not just the Romney story — dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator. He, or she, is trying to make a living and support or maybe start a family. A conservative reform of our health-care system and tax code, among other institutions, might help with these goals. About this person, however, Republicans have had little to say.

Finally, a thoughtful conclusion that recognizes the need for a better GOP.

Despair has led many Republicans to question their earlier confidence that America is a “center-right country.” It is certainly a country that has strong conservative impulses: skepticism of government, respect for religion, concern for the family. What the country does not have is a center-right party that explains how to act on these impulses to improve the national condition. Until it does, it won’t have a center-right political majority either.

We absolutely need such a center-right political majority. Now let's get to work.