by Peggy Noonan
They could win by default, but that’s not good enough.
In a year when Republicans are operating in such an enviable political environment, why aren’t their U.S. Senate candidates holding big and impressive leads? Why does it look close? Why are party professionals getting worried?
The Democratic president is unpopular. What progress can be claimed in the economy is tentative, uneven, feels temporary. True unemployment is bad and people who have jobs feels stressed and hammered by costs. Americans are less optimistic than they’ve ever been in the modern era, with right-track/wrong-track numbers upside down. Scandals, war, uncertain leadership—all this has yielded a sense the whole enterprise of the past six years just did not work.
But Republicans aren’t achieving lift-off. The metaphor used most often is the wave. If Republicans can’t make, catch and ride a wave in an environment like this, they’ve gone from being the stupid party to the stupid loser party.
An accomplished establishment Republican this week shrugged and noted the obvious: Every race is state-by-state and has its own realities; some candidates prove good and some are disappointing. Another establishment figure, an elected officeholder, observed with satisfaction that Republicans in Washington have done a good job making sure local candidates weren’t nutty persons who said nutty things.
But is that enough? Kellyanne Conway of The Polling Co. says no: “It’s not enough for voters to have a candidate who doesn’t say something controversial. They need something compelling.”
The party’s consultants say it comes down to money: Republicans are raising less than Democrats and need more. But Ms. Conway notes that in 2012, well-funded Republicans George Allen, Connie Mack, Linda McMahon, Josh Mandel and Tommy Thompson all went down to defeat. It’s not all about money.
The question this week is whether the election should be nationalized, lifted beyond the local and given power by clear stands on some agreed-upon national issues. Those who resist say the election has already been nationalized by Barack Obama. His and his administration’s unpopularity are all the unifying force that’s needed.
But put aside the word “nationalized.” Shouldn’t the Republican Party make it clear right now exactly what it is for and what it intends to do?
Here the views of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and much of the Washington-based GOP election apparatus have held sway. If you are explicit in terms of larger policy ideas, you just give Democrats something to shoot at. Don’t give them a target. ObamaCare, the foreign-policy mess, the IRS—these are so unpopular they’re more than enough reason to vote Republican. Don’t give voters a reason not to!
This sounds like the hard practicality of big-time politics, and it has a certain logic. But it doesn’t take into account some underlying realities.
One is the rising air of public crisis. Many voters, especially in the Republican base, feel America is under threat and we are losing our country. They feel they are fighting to save it. In a time of alarm, vagueness doesn’t seem clever but oblivious—out of touch and unaware.
A second reality is the GOP’s brand problem. Everyone knows about it and is tired to saying it; the Democrats continue exploiting it because it’s almost all they have. Moreover, history suggests a political brand problem gets resolved only by a vivid figure like FDR or Reagan, who through their popularity and power changed how people saw their parties. Republican politicians can’t sit around waiting for a vivid figure to come along, so they don’t talk about the problem anymore.
The cliché is that Republicans are old, white, don’t like women or science, are narrow, numeric and oppose all modern ways. The cliché probably isn’t as powerful as it used to be because the president has made so many new Republicans, but it’s still there.
But Republicanism right now has a special duty to be dynamic and serious. It has to paint a world of the possible. It has to make people feel that things can be made better. The spirit animating the party should be “This way, we will take that hill and hold it. Together, now, let’s march.” To rouse people you have to tell them your plans.
And it would be especially welcome at this moment. The Democratic Party in the last years of Obama is running on empty, pushing old buttons. To judge by their current campaigns, their only bullets are mischief and malice. The mischief includes a wholly fictional Republican war on women and the malice involves class-mongering and “check your privilege” manipulation. Only the young seem idealistic; older Democrats seem like a sated force.
The Democrats’ reputation is suffering, but the point here is the Republicans’. When you have a poor brand, do you spend all your time saying the other guy is worse? Or do you start rebuilding your reputation? In politics that means saying what you are for, not what you are against, and what you will do, not what the other guy will do if the voters let him.
A third reason to go with the idea of avowed meaning is the suspicion some voters must have that while to vote Democratic this year is to vote for the potential of more trouble, to vote Republican may be a vote for nothing changing or improving very much.
Both parties in Washington use stasis as a strategy. I suspect there are Republicans on the ground who intuit the Republican version of this. Republican inertia was outlined to me this spring, ironically, by a GOP congressman:
The 2010 election, he explained, was about winning the House, don’t rock the boat. Twenty twelve was all about the presidential—again don’t rock the boat, don’t mess things up with anything controversial, win the presidency to effect change. In 2014, he said, it’s all about the Senate—win it, hold the House. Then in 2016 it’s going to be all about the presidential and holding the Senate. In 2018, he said, it will be all about holding Congress for a Republican president or against a Democratic one. Then in 2020 it will be all about the presidential.
After that, he said, we might do something!
His point was that party professionals think the party has to keep winning, so—wait. For what?
Republican political professionals need to get the meaning of things back. Otherwise, if Republicans do take the Senate, their new majority will arrive not having won on the basis of something shared. They will not be able to claim any mandate for anything. That will encourage them to become self-driven freelancers in a very pleasant and distinguished freelancer’s club, which is sort of what the Senate is.
It’s good to win, but winning without a declared governing purpose is a ticket to nowhere.
Some feel a vague list of general stands might solve the problem and do the trick. They think it’s probably too late to do more than that. But there are 6½ weeks before the election, and plenty of voters would be asking for more information and open to changing their minds. In such circumstances, explicit vows are more likely to be taken seriously than airy sentiments.
Republicans need to say what they’re for. They need to make it new and true—not something defensive but something equal to the moment.