The Right Opinion

Republicans Need to Talk

In defeat, the party has an opportunity to air differences and flesh out new ideas.

By Peggy Noonan · Dec. 15, 2012

Viewed a certain way, the 2012 election can be seen as a gift to Republicans wrapped in ugly paper. The wrapping looked like a hostage note with a message scrawled in crayon: “We hate you.” But inside was a gift, and the gift was time. The party was given the opportunity, when it is still strong, to hold the kind of fresh, open-the-windows debate it would have been forced to have in 2016 anyway, and in less favorable conditions. If Mitt Romney had won this year he would have had a very tough presidency, with the left revived and the coffers empty and the president having to move deftly, brilliantly, to summon and keep support. And while there were many things in Mr. Romney’s toolbox, deft political brilliance wasn’t one of them. Meanwhile, demographic and cultural changes would have proceeded apace. So 2016 and after would have been brutal for the party.

But it’s well-positioned now for an opening of the windows because everyone, from the establishment to the base, just took a serious shock to the system. Organisms that survive a shock are often able to see their surroundings more acutely. The establishment, hardy self-seeking survivors that they are, already knew the party was in trouble. Now, importantly, the base does. Now local precinct leaders know. The tea party knows, Christian conservatives know. They’re all reading the same data, the same polls.

Right now everyone’s open to the idea of change. The party can either go the way of the Whigs or they can straighten up and fly right, get serious, make their philosophy feel new again, and pick candidates who can win.

But party leaders should start making their new arguments now. There’s no reason to wait, no benefit in it. Everything moves faster now. There’s no particular need to let positions evolve, because they’ve already been quietly evolving for years, though people didn’t always feel free to say so. There are many disagreements in the GOP, but they’ve not always been aired. For the past 10 years the party has operated under an ethic of Questioning the Team Is Disloyal, Dissent Is Disloyal, as Is Criticism.

This has been a recipe not for peace but for disaster. Which is what we saw on Nov. 6.

I say these obvious things – and yes, they are all obvious – because in a small thread of party thinkers I belong to someone recently used the phrase “if the Republicans can change.” I was startled. I said of course they’ll change, all things that are alive want not to die, if Republicans don’t change they’ll die, so they’ll change. This was greeted with a certain kindhearted skepticism, which struck me because they’re all very smart and have worked in the trenches. Someone said, “I wish I shared your optimism.” I didn’t know I was being optimistic, I thought I was just being realistic.

In connection to that, a look at two big speeches, and then some elaboration on a previous point.

The speeches were by Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, at the Jack Kemp Awards dinner last week. Much attention was paid because both are assumed to be running for president, which each joked about, somewhat creepily. We’ve got dire problems and you’re thinking New Hampshire. Good to know.

Rep. Ryan’s speech was OK but insufficient. He didn’t say anything terrible but he didn’t stake out new ground or take chances. Actually, the part where he said Mitt Romney made “a big election about big ideas and offering serious solutions to serious problems” was slightly terrible because it isn’t in a general way true, and it forestalls analysis that might actually be helpful in the long term. Mr. Ryan got points for loyalty but no one doubts he’s loyal, and it undercut his central message, which is that the Republican Party needs “new thinking,” “fresh ideas and serious leadership,” and must find “new ways to apply our timeless principles to the challenges of today.”

Well, yes, that’s true. But what thinking do you suggest? In what area? Which fresh ideas? Do you have one?

The thrust of Mr. Ryan’s remarks seemed to suggest the party has to show its economic stands are aligned with the views of the working and middle classes. Fine. But how, exactly? What changes should be made, not just to message but content?

If conservatives are going to appeal to the nonrich, perhaps we want to be talking about – I don’t know, let’s float an idea – breaking up the banks? Too big to fail is too big to live, didn’t we learn that in 2008? Why aren’t we debating this? How about doing away with the carried interest deduction? Would billionaire hedge-fund contributors not like that? Isn’t that just kind of . . . too bad?

Those are two ideas that, while politically difficult, would have broad populist appeal and are conservative in essence.

This is not the time to be describing the problem – we need “new thinking” – it’s the time to start coming up with the new thinking.

Sen. Rubio had a better speech in that it was deeper, more broadly philosophical and less prescriptive. He told of how he’d spoken, at the August convention, of his father, a bartender in banquet halls. Recently he spoke in a “fancy” hotel in New York – that was rather Sarah Palin, the “fancy” – and the ballroom workers gave him a badge that said “Rubio, Banquet Bartender.” He should wear that badge on his suit every day. It’s better symbolism than Mr. Romney’s car elevator.

But Mr. Rubio also indulged a rhetorical tic that we hear a lot and that is deeply obnoxious. He said the words “middle class” 12 times on the first page alone. Repeating that phrase mantralike will not make people think you’re concerned about the middle class, it will only make them think you’re concerned about winning the middle class. It is important to remember in politics that people aren’t stupid.

I find both Mr. Ryan’s and Mr. Rubio’s media expertise mildly harrowing – look at the prompter here, shake your head here, lower your voice there, raise it here, pick up your pace in this section. An entire generation of politicians in both parties has been too trained in media, and to their detriment. They are very smooth but it doesn’t make them seem more convincing, it makes them seem phonier. My old boss had actually been an actor, but he didn’t seem like a phony. He talked like a normal person at a podium, with a nice voice, and occasionally stumbling. It’s not bad to be human when you’re trying to appeal to humans.

These speeches were lauded, but they didn’t scour, Abe Lincoln’s term for a speech that says what needs saying. We know we need “new thinking.” Let’s hear it.

A final note, connected to an earlier point.

Republicans are now in the habit of editing their views, and they’ve been in it for 10 years. The Bush White House suppressed dissent; talk radio stars functioned as enforcers; the angrier parts of the base, on the Internet, attempted to silence critical thinkers. Orthodoxy was everything, or orthodoxy as some defined it.

This isn’t loyalty, it’s lockstep. It has harmed the party’s creativity, its ability to think, when now more than ever it has to. Enough.