The GOP And The “Politics Of Aspiration”

Steven Greenhut has an excellent editorial on what the GOP needs to do to recapture the credibility they’ve hemorrhaged over the last few years. The message is one that the GOP should take to heart: voters want something to vote for. Obama’s empty “change” message is resonating, and the GOP has to offer substantive change in response.

For example, he offers this message on taxes:

You pay plenty in taxes already. It’s not just about the cash, but about freedom. You need to invest in your business, pay your mortgage and pay for your kids’ education. Government already has too much money, and it spends it on mission-creep rather than the ‘public good.’ By the way, we are NOT going to increase taxes on your grandchildren by engaging in reckless debt spending, either.

That is the sort of message that the GOP needs to be sending. Confidence in government is at an all-time low—the Democratic argument that government is fundamentally broken, so let’s have more of it should be a non-starter. Obama’s great personal magnetism betrays yet another out-of-touch liberal.

But if the Republicans think that calling a spade a spade will win them the election, they’re dead wrong. Sticking Obama with the “liberal” label—even if richly deserved and completely accurate—is not going to be enough to swing the election. The GOP needs to have a real agenda.

Even though conservatives are balking at Sen. McCain’s efforts to speak out on global warming—and for good reason—at least he’s trying to set the agenda. The Lexington Project is the sort of forward-looking strategy that voters are looking for. The GOP needs to be a party of ideas, and the party leadership has to realize that calling the other guys names won’t work for them any more than it worked for the Democrats in 2002 and 2004. We need not only to say that we have conservative values, but make conservative values relevant to the American voter.

Why is a market approach better for health care? Because, as Mr. Greenhut explains, markets lower costs and make goods and services more available. But that isn’t enough, even though it’s true. What the GOP has always had a problem doing is taking those facts and turning them into a narrative. A market is an abstract concept… people respond to things that are within their own experience. The right narrative is that market-driven health care is like going to the neighborhood grocery store while government-run health care is like standing in a bread line. While that’s a rough analogy, it’s effective.

In a fair world, being a staunch conservative would be enough to win a Presidential election. This world isn’t fair, and politics is especially unfair. It is not enough to parade one’s conservative bona fides and call the other guy a liberal extremist. The way to win an election is to play, as Mr Greenhut puts it, to the “politics of aspiration.” For all the talk of the greatness of Ronald Reagan, the GOP seems to be having a tough time capturing the spirit of American optimism that motivated his campaign.

There is one thing that Mr. Greenhut is wrong about, though. This country shouldn’t be punished for the GOP’s transgressions. An Obama administration would be an unmitigated disaster for this nation. We don’t need another radical Supreme Court justice putting their whims above the rule of law. We don’t need higher taxes during an economic downturn. We can’t have radicals further using the machinery of the administrative state to reduce our freedoms even more. That doesn’t even touch on issues of free trade, energy policy, and other critical matters.

The GOP needs to get its act together. Years of fiscal irresponsibility and institutional incompetence have taken their toll on the Republican Party. The stakes in this election are too high not to embrace an agenda of substantive change. The GOP needs to not only stand on its values, but make those values accessible to those who don’t yet share them.

The GOP can win on the “politics of aspiration”—so long as they aspire to something higher than just skating by.

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