David Frum

01.28.2813

It's Still Not 1980 Anymore

Win McNamee/Getty Images ()

The New Republic's Alec MacGillis reports a few items of good news for conservatives from the National Review Institute Summit. He leads with the most important: some conservatives are loudly, vocally and persuasively arguing that Republicans must focus on meeting the needs of 21st century voters instead of constantly rehashing how to restore the political conditions of the early 1980s.

Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist and longtime advocate for Republican policies geared to help working-class voters, countered that Bush, with his purported compassionate conservatism and spending on things like the Medicare drug benefit, had at least tried to respond to the problems foremost in voters’ minds, such as rising health care and education quality, the sort of issues that Bill Clinton had “thumping Republicans up and down Washington for six years."

“The Republican Party will never get back from the wilderness if it just says we have to keep our brand pure and make sure Americans know we’re the party of small party,” Douthat said.

“Voters are pretty confident right now in the Paul Ryan era that the Republican Party is the party of small government, and they didn’t vote for the Republican Party in the last election cycle, even with Paul Ryan on the ticket…

Ultimately, Barack Obama won the election because people thought he cared about people like us.” That was a sentiment that conservatives have trouble inspiring, he said, and one that “George W. Bush, for all his many flaws, was better at dealing with than any other leader of the party since.”

There it is, guys and gals. Voters know what the GOP represents: small government. For all the talk about purifying the Republican "brand," you'd almost think voters were confused about what Republicans offer voters. They're not.

It's time to realize what voters want to hear: basic solutions to better their lives. In the 1980s, that was combating tax creep and curbing inflation. (And, while we were at it, facing down the Red Menace and ushering in the end of the Cold War.)

Today's voters aren't facing inflation. They don't have especially high tax rates when compared to the past. Move on and realize that most Americans are far more concerned about health care costs and coverage, education for their children, and knowing a modicum of security is available for them in their old age. Some, as Bill Kristol wondered aloud, might even want to know why a major financial crisis occured during a Republican administration. The GOP has yet to give them a great answer for why they should be trusted to retake the reins.

If there was a takeaway from this weekend, it's that this message was repeatedly said by trusted, respected conservatives. The Reagan era has passed. Winning elections and being a viable national party requires recognition of this reality and retooling our party. It's far deeper than message, but it can be done.