15 May 2008

Why Republicans are Losing

Tuesday night the Republican party lost its third Congressional seat in a special election, all in districts vacated by Republicans, all in districts that President Bush carried by a very wide margin in 2004.

Wednesday morning Congressman Tom Cole, the Chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, issued a recommendation to his colleagues:
I encourage all Republican candidates, whether incumbents or challengers, to take stock of their campaigns and position themselves for challenging campaigns this fall by building the financial resources and grassroots networks that offer them the opportunity and ability to communicate, energize and turn out voters this election.
I really don't mean to be flip - seriously, I don't - but I thought that's what campaigns are supposed to do anyway. In fact, I'm pretty sure the Republican Party was quite good at raising money, energizing a base, and turning out voters until recently.

I don't hide the fact that I'm a Democrat. I'm not going to rule out the notion that Americans, even deep in the most red districts of red states, associate the Republican party with current economic conditions or the state of affairs in Iraq and perhaps want to give "the other folks" a chance to change things. But to be candid, I somehow doubt a district that President Bush won in 2004 by, say, 50 or 60 points has suddenly experienced an ideological conversion.

Republicans aren't energizing and drawing out their base because they're not having a true conversation with them. They still think it's a lecture. They still think talking points come from one source and trickle down. Hey - don't take my word for it, take theirs - such as GOP wunderkind David All:
"We've always been a party of staying on message," All said. "It's the Rush Limbaugh model. What Tony Snow says in the White House filters down to talk radio, which makes its way to the blogs."
But the problem is when your message doesn't resonate, and it clearly didn't in those three districts, there aren't any alternative voices within your party apparatus to embrace. And if the guy at the top decides to change his tune, it's like turning a very small rudder on a very large aircraft carrier - it takes a long time for the U.S.S. Republican to turn.

What was once a gigantic flaw of the Democratic Party is now, ironically, a huge asset - nobody, and I mean NOBODY, speaks for all Democrats. Not Howard Dean, not Nancy Pelosi, not Hillary Clinton, not even Barack Obama. Democrats speak for themselves. It's one of the reasons they've had so much trouble voting in unanimity on so many things. It's the reason we've had a difficult nomination fight for so long.

Democrats speak for themselves and with each other on blogs, in caucus meetings, and on places like YouTube. The Democratic campaigns facilitated some of it, but nearly all of it is from self-starters. Democrats have embraced social media tools and now use them as an equalizer for the $10,000 a plate RNC fundraisers and talk radio. And because they like the idea that nobody speaks for them, they're able to do this sort of thing quickly and easily. So you see young "superdelegates" (egad, the very concept of a "superdelegate" makes me itch) do stuff like this:

So when Congressman Cole says what he said, he's really saying "do what the Democrats have done." He's really calling for a monumental shift in how the Republicans campaign and communicate. He's asking his colleagues to surrender control of the message to its base. And his colleagues are understandably nervous about that. Of course, the longer they resist Congressman Cole's call to action, the longer they'll be in the minority.


Cynthia Samuels said...

What's so ironic is that the Republicans largely got where they WERE when they were dominant by successfully maintaining massive message control. Massive. And the think tanks like Heritage and Cato provided the message, which was issued everywhere. During the debate over the estate tax, there was allegedly a jar in the Republican Cloakroom and anyone who said "estate tax" instead of "death tax" on the Senate floor had to put a quarter in the jar. Now all that "message discipline" is too heavy for the times. Democrats have to be careful though that things don't get crazy. I think Obama is wise to be asking the 527s to hang back so he can deliver the unity message without a lot of vitriol coming from supporter groups. Great observations David, as usual.

Paul said...

Nice article! I totally agree with you. The biggest struggle I see is that the whole idea of "change" as in them changing the way they campaign is like conservative repellent in some ways.

Should be interesting to see what goes down in the coming months.

David said...

Thanks, C&P. I definitely agree that republicans do a great job maintaining "message discipline."

But to be honest, "message discipline" is SO five years ago. The Democrats don't agree on basically anything. But they've established an environment where, at least right now, everyone gets to speak their mind and know someone's listening.

The Republicans really don't have that right now.

I understand your point that the dems don't want to let things "get crazy," but I don't know if that can be prevented, and I'm not sure we should try. I honestly think that's the attitude that led us to the concept of "superdelegate" in the first place, and that just seems so anti-democratic to me. It suggests we can't trust the people to elect the best candidate.

mothergoosemouse said...

Message discipline is the reason why I've changed my party registration. The Republicans leave no room for differing opinions, and I'm tired of being counted as one of them

Mark Story said...


You know that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but your assessment is dead on.

The Republicans on the Hill are running from the President as the election nears, and President Bush has also picked the wrong time to start threatening vetoes.

I am (barely) past the point of Missing Reagan, but I sure would love to see the coordinated message machine once again. When Karen Hughes left DC (the first time), it went to hell in a handbasket.


P.S. - The Irritable Elephant is now officially dead. Long live the Irritable Elephant.