When the Swift Boat scandal first emerged in 2004, Bill Clinton reportedly called John Kerry, telling him that he better figure out a way to make it disappear. “If you are the issue in a campaign,” Clinton told Kerry, “you’ll lose. And right now you are the issue. Fix it.” It was one of the cardinal rules of politics which Kerry was unable to fix, and he lost.
During his 2008 campaign, Obama famously said that if you don’t have a record to run on, you just attack the other guy so voters won’t think about your record. It was Clinton’s rule, Obama’s campaign team adopted it with a vengeance early in the summer of 2012, and the results are now obvious.
Obama’s campaign spent tens of millions of dollars, starting long before Romney was the official nominee, on highly negative ads about Romney’s career at Bain Capital, accusing him of being a heartless corporate takeover artist interested only in fattening his own bank account at the expense of hard-working middle class workers. Election laws prohibited Romney from spending general campaign money defending himself before he was the official nominee, and little by little Obama’s advertising campaign began to stick. As a result, the campaign, instead of being a referendum on Obama’s dismal first term, became a referendum on Romney’s business career. Although both sides had their ups and downs throughout the campaign, Romney never fully recovered, and the Obama record of profligate spending, the unpopular Obamacare law, and his disregard of the Constitution escaped the full attention of the voters, and Romney, instead of Obama, was the issue. Clinton’s rule prevailed.
The second cardinal rule of politics tells us that when Republicans distinguish themselves from Democrats, they win. But when they run as Democrat-lite, they lose. Nearly twice as many Americans call themselves conservatives – close to 40% — than liberals. Given Obama’s appallingly liberal policies and liberal record, the election should have been a cakewalk for Romney. Too often he tried to keep both sides happy. The result was a deviation from principle which, as it has so many times before, probably cost him the election.
So we are stuck with another four years of Obama, a Democrat Senate run by the highly partisan Harry Reid, and a House of Representatives even more Republican than the last. And to complicate things more, the country has rarely been so divided. And the losing half is probably unlikely to give Obama even a fraction of the honeymoon he had in 2008, if any at all.
What do we do?
First, we stick to our principles. Elections are won and lost for all sorts of reasons. Candidates often run on a platform which is soon ignored. But the things that we believe in – free markets, Constitutional principles and the rule of law, traditional values and a strong national security – are the core values around which the conservative movement is based and which must endure beyond election results. We have been fighting for those principles since the early 1950s, and it is because of those principles that conservatives are the mainstream now. Don’t give up.
Second, we analyze what wrong, put it in the rearview mirror and move forward. We look forward to 2014 when Republicans have one of the best chances in years to control the Senate, and make Obama’s last two years completely unproductive.
Third, we produce a short list of “no excuses” — issues which reflect our values and which we demand the Congress not allow (which is possible with our majority in the House). These are the lines in the sand for the conservative movement. That list includes defunding Obamacare, allowing no tax increases, reforming the tax code, maintaining a strong military. That list is being developed by conservative leaders and will be presented to the movement, and the new Congress, very soon.
Fourth, and as a corollary to the last point, we need to make it clear to the Republican leadership in the House and Senate that conservatives demand leadership – that Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell not cave in to Democrats and moderate Republicans but stick to conservative principles.
Finally, we must begin our search for candidates for 2016. The Republican bench is long and impressive. Conservatives must begin to cultivate a couple of those people, begin to build organizations and support so we are ready for the next cycle. Another four years of Obama will no doubt leave the country ready for something very, very different, and our side needs to be ready with the best possible candidates. That effort should start now.