Conservatism no doubt took a big hit on November 6, but the eulogies for the movement are premature. Liberals were in worse despair after the 1988 election—liberalism’s third-straight defeat—when talk of the Electoral College lock and the southwestern demographic “tilt” led analysts to conclude that they would not be able to recapture the presidency. As Bill Schneider wrote in 1988: “The Democrats are the victims of demographic change and ideological change. The movement of population to the Sun Belt has shifted the balance in the Electoral College decisively.” The Democrats have won four out of six presidential elections since 1988, and the popular vote in five out of six of those elections.
Conservatives can take some solace in noting the folly of projections based on straight-line extrapolations, but the fact remains that conservatives must act if they want to turn things around. The Democrats did not just wait for the Electoral College lock to break on its own. They went out and shattered the lock, picking some more effective candidates, changing their rhetoric, if not their policies, and taking advantage of those demographic trends that were in their favor.
The GOP needs to go out and do these same things. The GOP’s problem in 2012 was not that it was too moderate or too conservative, but that it did not lay out a cogent vision of conservatism. The Republicans ran a “safe” campaign and tried to avoid ideological matters. As it turned out, this was not a “safe” approach at all, and was somewhat analogous to the New York Giants’ ineffectual “prevent offense” of the 1970’s A better approach would be to have the presidential standard-bearer embody conservatism. This was Ronald Reagan’s gift. Reagan made clear that his views were those of conservatism, and he did not allow other voices on the left, the right, or in the mainstream media to define conservatism for him. This is not unique to Reagan. George W. Bush came up with the concept of “compassionated conservatism” in his 2000 election, making that vision of conservatism his, and implicitly defining other perspectives as contrary to it.
The next GOP candidate should learn from Reagan and make his or hers the voice of an articulate and coherent conservative ideology. The conservatism the candidate expressed also needs to be Reaganesque in nature: inclusive, confident, optimistic, and forward-looking. This conservatism can overcome its demographic challenges by offering a vision popular enough to transcend the Democrats’ identity politics, in much the same way that Reagan won over Northeastern Catholics and Bush secured 40% of the Latino vote in 2004.
The unacceptable alternative is to countenance a communications vacuum that allows political gaffes from a Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock—or the political accusations of a Joe Biden or Chris Matthews—to define and caricature conservatism. If conservatives are successful in this endeavor, the lesson for the future will be that Republican candidates lose when the only conservative voices heard are the ones not their own.
From the Commentary Symposium on the Future of Conservatism.