A conservatory of Ldotter blogs.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Republican brand. . .

. . .and its sad decline in the public's esteem is on the minds of an awful lot of conservatives today, and everyone seems to think they have the answer. I'm not sure if I do or not. But, what I do have is conjecture. And that's really what the whole blogging thing is all about, isn't it? Well, at least that's what it's all about for bloggers like me, who don't have access to Lexis-Nexis and researchers and interns and such. I have to rely on a memory that is occasionally sketchy, gut feeling, observation, and Google -- by far the most useful of the tool set.

Sometimes, though, Google is ill-suited to find the information you need to bolster your case -- especially when the case you're trying to make is built by mostly gut feeling and observation. And, that pretty much sums up this one.

I believe that the collapse in public approval for the GOP right now has as much to do with what the Democrats have done as with anything that Republicans have done over the past several years. As the old maxim goes, nothing succeeds like success, and having achieved electoral success, voters are doing what comes naturally and backing the winner. (It would be terribly impolitic of me to use bin Laden's "strong horse" analogy in this context, so I won't.)

But, the manner in which the Democrats managed to achieve their electoral success has a good deal to do with it, as well. They've been very smart over the past couple of election cycles and shown themselves to be adaptable. After a decade of life in the minority, they finally wised up and realized that if they were going to have any hope of regaining the majorities they once enjoyed largely unchallenged, they were going to have to adjust to the new political reality rather than continue to insist on perpetuating the silly notion that the only reason that they were losing at the ballot box was because they were indistinguishable from Republicans. It finally dawned on them that, in the places where they were losing, it was simply because the people there preferred a more conservative approach to government.

Accordingly, they began recruiting candidates who were more appealing to voters who held more conservative positions on certain issues than the Democratic Party as a whole is generally known to hold. In the past, Democrats were subject to much more pressure to adhere to the national party's dictates with regard to social issues or risk being targeted by the withholding of party funds and the financing of primary opponents who more reliably toed the party line. Now, it seems that wisely decided that the best course of action was to achieve a Democrat majority and work toward incremental implementation of the national party's agenda. This will create some friction within the party with regard to cultural and social issues like guns, abortion and gay marriage, but it will also go a long way toward achieving other goals that are equally important to the Democrat rank and file, such as nationalized healthcare, environmental restrictions, and so-called economic and social justice.

By recognizing that their big-picture plans don't stand a chance of coming to fruition as long as Republicans continued to win in areas where views tend to be more emphatically conservative on social issues, they have given themselves a chance to at least achieve whatever goals they have in which they enjoy an electoral advantage over conservatives. In short, they prioritized the goals in such a way that would put success more easily within reach. And, having achieved electoral success, they are free to set the national agenda in such a way that puts the national party in a more favorable light with voters.

The GOP has been absolutely woeful in this regard. As the Democrats have become more focused on achieving specific goals, Republicans have taken on a completely defensive posture. On issue after issue where there is public dissatisfaction, the Democrats have promised government-based solutions while the Republicans have offered nothing more than critiques, and never a counter-offer to the voters. It is simply not enough to try to scare voters away from an idea if you don't have something better to offer as an alternative.

If Republicans hope to regain the public's trust, they're going to have to follow the Democrats' example by finding the issues of greatest concern to the voters and coming up with private sector-based alternatives to the government-based solutions offered by the opposition. Then, they will need to recruit candidates who can advance those alternatives, even if it means supporting some who do not always adhere to every jot and tittle of conservative orthodoxy. That doesn't mean that we must accept an influx of Chafee-style Republicans who seeming have no conservative moorings of which to speak. But, we do have to face the reality that there are many potential candidates out there who can advance a specific set of conservative goals while being unreliable on matters that, while important, may not be the most pressing issues in the minds of voters at any given time.

Many movement conservatives see any sort of heterodoxy as outright betrayal of the entire movement. This is always going to be the case. But, in times when orthodoxy threatens to undermine the entire movement, you have to do what it takes to remain viable in hopes of living to fight another day. That's going to require tailoring the conservative agenda to suit the particular times by rearranging priorities. This carries the risk of alienating some important elements of the movement, to be sure. But a failure to adapt to the times is a recipe for extinction.

Case in point: As I pointed out recently, Republicans, and the conservative movement in general, have failed abysmally to address the concerns of the public with regard to "climate change" or "global warming". Rather than offer alternative means of addressing the concerns that a great majority of voters have, they've simply pooh-poohed the very idea. This will lead to candidates, and the party at large, to be seen as "out of touch" with the voters. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it doesn't pay to have this image in the eyes of voters.

Kathryn Jean Lopez posted a useful item at The Corner this morning, citing Bjorn Lomborg as a go-to guy with regard to climate change hysteria. Many conservatives are already well aware of Mr. Lomborg's work, and he is not someone who can be easily dismissed. It's a shame that the general public isn't more aware of him than it is, and it doesn't speak well of conservatism that this is the case. Be that as it may, it simply isn't enough to trot out climate experts who view they hysteria with a great degree of skepticism. Because, in the voter's mind, the phenomenon of climate change isn't a singular issue, but one that is intertwined with other issues.

Lomborg councils in response to the Gallup poll that showed that an overwhelming majority of voters believe that climate change is real that, even though that may be the case, it isn't one of the top priorities in the public mind.

While this is undoubtedly true, as polls do indicate, it is directly and indirectly associated with other issues that the public view as extremely pressing. Because, as environmentalists have long been making the case, people see climate change as the product of the over-reliance on fossil fuels for energy. Fossil fuels are the source of income for two of the most hated entities in the public mind today; big oil companies who "put profits before people" and middle eastern sheiks whose every move seems designed to undermine the American way of life.

By dismissing out-of-hand the perceived threat of climate change, candidates and their parties leave themselves open to charges that they are doing the bidding of "big oil" and the Arab sheiks who seek our destruction. There's also the perception that our reliance on these fossil fuels and the extent to which we're beholden to its sources leads the nation into unnecessary wars that could be avoided if we adopted a more "green" approach to satisfying our insatiable need for energy. There's the perception that investing in the development of other sources of energy will help us to avoid future investments of precious blood and treasure in the middle east.

Simply offering up the idea of tapping domestic sources of oil doesn't really address that issue in the minds of voters, nor in reality. It is a temporary alleviation of symptoms, at best -- though one that is needed greatly and immediately. Unfortunately, it won't provide that relief immediately, as it takes considerable time to develop oil fields and pipelines. Voters understand this, and they can easily be persuaded that it is a "Band-Aid" approach that doesn't address the core of the issue. They also recognize that following this plan will provide even more profits for "big oil" -- something that they're not keen to do these days, given the prices they're paying at the gas pump.

John McCain has offered an approach that, while not exactly what conservatives see as "business friendly", does offer some sense to voters that he's an independent man who is not afraid to do things that might offend the bad guys for political expediency. Whether we like it or not, the public sees the Bush administration as just the opposite, and it is reminded of it every time they fill their tanks. It may not be fair, but it's the political reality that we live in. And, until someone can change that perception, conservatives are simply going to have to deal with it the best way they can. McCain is offering a plan that establishes himself as an agent who is independent of the hated oil companies and Arab sheiks, while taking a more market-based approach than those of his competitor.

This is just one of the priorities which Republicans are going to have to address very soon if it is to regain the trust of American voters. McCain offers a blueprint that, while not perfect, seems to be the best way to address the anxiety of Americans without giving in to a knee-jerk desire to punish business for being profitable. And, the fact is, there is no way that any proposal is going to implemented whole cloth. It seems that the best course for conservatives in the current climate is to accept the premise of the McCain plan while working in Congress to make it more palatable to industry, while at the same time, educating the public about the facts of climate change and the role that fossil fuels play in our environment relative to all other phenomena that have an impact on it.

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