One of the things that continues to irk me is how conservatives in general and Republicans in particular display a singularly high degree of incompetence when it comes to pushing their ideas in the public sphere.
For all too many on the right, an “attitude of ineptitude” has marked their sales pitches.
Even when they do a large number of commendable things, as the GOP accomplished in its short two years of legislative control in Maine, the movement and its political representatives have proven astoundingly hopeless on the “Look at what we accomplished” scale of effectiveness.
Oh, there have been radio addresses here and there, and an occasional op-ed once in a while, but when it comes to countering the constant campaign that Democrats seem to be born knowing how to conduct, the GOP and conservatives in general are wielding peashooters on a nuclear battlefield.
It’s not that there are no ideas, or no accomplishments to point at. Conservatives have commonsense to sell, along with proven economic reforms and a record of utter failure on the part of their opponents to produce better conditions. Why are they not being sold everywhere and all the time?
And conservatives fail to defend their leaders. If Democrats could honor Teddy Kennedy as “the Lion of the Senate” after he abandoned a girl to drown, and still consider Bill Clinton an elder statesman after he lied under oath and carried on with an intern in the Oval Office (and countless other women), why does Gov. LePage, who has a compelling personal story, seem to stand alone when all he does is commit verbal gaffes?
The papers should be full of “So what, here’s what he’s actually done in office” letters all over the state — but such defenses are few and far between, as if the Republican Party and its leaders didn’t realize they are also under attack every time LePage is.
In truth, even when we examine conservative victories, all too often we find they come from engaged private groups rather than party spokesmen.
Take, for example, the recent successful campaign, in the face of Democratic majorities, to block the publication of the names and addresses of concealed carry permit holders, which required a positive change in the law.
Not only did that change get made, but moves to restrict gun owners’ rights were stopped in their tracks as well, even with liberal majorities. Yet, the primary campaign effort came from gun owner ranks, not Republican Party ones. The party tagged along where it could have led, and missed out on a chance to firmly tie its brand — via advertisements and a consistent public message — to a popular conservative cause.
Indeed, the party seems to think that in between elections, it is a waste of time to advertise. It isn’t only candidates who need boosting, it’s issues, and a steady ad buy month in and month out would be a wiser investment of party funds (and a good reason to ask for more contributions) than any number of other priorities.
The idea of taking the fight to the opposition isn’t unique by any means. For a comprehensive effort to lay out a battle plan for the coming years, the GOP could do a lot worse than to read “Fight Fire With Fire,” a speech delivered by activist author and speaker David Horowitz to the Americans for Prosperity “Defending the American Dream” Summit in Florida recently.
Horowitz’ manifesto is too long for anything but a brief digest here, so I recommend a thorough study by those with the heart to act on their convictions.
Still, a few points are worth mentioning:
— “If the last five unhappy years have taught us anything, it is these two things: First, elections have consequences. The left’s last two electoral triumphs have already had a devastating impact on our nation and its future. America is now a great power in steep decline, a by-stander in world events, where once it shaped them.”
— And, germane to my comments on LePage above, Horowitz writes: “The second thing we have learned is something that everyone knows but no one wants to admit: well-designed character attacks can have a crucial impact on electoral outcomes; well-designed character attacks overpower well-crafted messages.”
Horowitz notes that Mitt Romney “had a good message and an obvious one: Obama’s economic recovery has been a sorry failure; 23 million people still are jobless; many more are underemployed; if you want jobs and economic opportunities, support the job creators and innovators and deregulators. But a critical majority of the voting public never heard Romney’s message. The reason? A $200 million smear campaign successfully portrayed him as a heartless job destroyer, a mouthpiece for the selfish rich, someone whose words you can’t trust.”
Such attacks went on without a response, and without a counter-campaign noting Obama’s weaknesses: “There was no $200 million campaign dedicated to destroying Obama’s credibility and undermining his message. Obama’s opponents didn’t have a message discrediting his character and neutralizing his attacks.”
Partly, he says, it was because the GOP was hesitant to use the same tactics against a black man as were used against them, fearing they would be called “racists.” Well, they were called that anyway.
And partly it was because “Conservatives often fail to appreciate the cynical basis of the attacks on them. Conservatives are earnest – too earnest. They aim their messages at the head instead of the heart. They appeal to reason instead of the emotions. That’s why they lose.”
And yet, the Democratic record in office is a lengthy litany of failures disguised under the rhetoric of good intentions. It is way past time to call them on it, and do so in an organized, unified and well-funded manner.
“How can we who believe in individual rights and free markets fight this? How can we neutralize the slanders and show that we are the real defenders of minorities, the poor, the little guy, working Americans, the middle class? How can we turn the tables on them? It’s not rocket science. You can counter their attacks by turning their guns around. You can neutralize them by fighting fire with fire.”
“In the real world,’ Horowitz writes, “Democrat socialists have made the lives of poor Americans worse, much worse. You need to shove this fact in their faces every time you speak. Here is the reality: In every inner city of size in America, the selfish exploiters of the poor are liberals – what I am calling Democrat socialists; they are the ones who fatten themselves off the votes of minorities and the poor while blocking their opportunities for a better life, and throwing them crumbs in return.”
But that record is not exploited: “Some Republicans have complained that Democrats win because they hand out goodies to minorities and the poor. Yes, they do. But the goodies they hand out are chump change compared to what they’ve destroyed for all Americans and especially for the poor. Would you rather live on food stamps and handouts or be able to pay for what you need and want? I don’t think there are many Americans who would have trouble making that choice.”
So, Horowitz says, the right should go both negative and positive at the same time, “remembering that the best defense is a good offense: (First,) attack the Democrat socialists for their wars against minorities and the poor. Expose their empty promises and question their character and undermine their message by portraying them as hypocrites who cannot be trusted. In attacking them as enemies of minorities and the poor we show that we care what happens to minorities and the poor. We put them on the defensive, and we neutralize their malicious and unfair attacks.”
Second, adopt a positive program. He thinks education is ripe for such basic change, and here’s how he would do it: “Let’s take the education dollar that taxpayers now give to the bureaucrats who don’t care about their children, and give it back to the taxpayers. Let’s voucherize all the school systems in the country from kindergarten to college. … Instead of calling for the abolition of the Department of Education, call for a fundamental change in its mission. Take its $50 billion or so budget and require that the money be spent on a voucher program for all Americans – from kindergarten through college.”
That, he said, would “put the education dollars in the hands of every poor and middle class person in America. And let’s launch this effort with a $100 million TV ad campaign to tell Americans how the liberal socialists in every major urban school system have destroyed the lives of poor, mainly black and Hispanic children, who can’t afford the private schools that liberal legislators send their own kids to.”
A party that wanted to win — and was confident in its own principles — would do something just like that, and more besides, taking the cause of defending minorities and the poor away from Democrats, who only exploit them.
So, is the GOP, both in Maine and at the national level, a party that wants to win? If so, the peashooters need to be retired, and the nuclear warheads brought out.
In other words, fight fire with fire.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org