Jack Kelly: GOP must change ways to be competitive

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Defeat fosters introspection, which is good, and recriminations, which are bad.

All Republicans agree the GOP must change to be competitive in future elections. But few agree on what should change.

The problem is our nominee was another moderate Establishment squish who pulled his punches, say some Tea Party types.

The problem is those wild-eyed Tea Partiers, like those bozos in Indiana and Missouri, say some moderate Establishment squishes. They allow the news media to portray us as extremists.

We need to state our principles more clearly and forcefully, conservatives say. We shouldn't back off of them an inch.

We need to compromise more with Democrats, say some moderates. We have to show we're flexible, reasonable.

No good can come from forming a circular firing squad. The GOP lost across the board. Bad candidates lost. So did good candidates. Moderates lost. So did Tea Party favorites. Republicans lost in blue states, purple states, even in some red states.

Republicans didn't lose because they compromised too much or too little, were too strident or too milquetoast. They lost because 38 percent of the voters were Democrats, just 32 percent Republicans. That Mitt Romney came as close to winning as he did with a D+6 electorate is remarkable.

Mr. Romney won the same proportion of the white vote as Ronald Reagan had in his 1984 landslide. Back then, whites were 88 percent of the electorate, but just 73 percent this year. Blacks -- 13 percent of the electorate -- voted for President Barack Obama, 93-6. Hispanics -- 10 percent -- voted for the president by 40 percentage points.

"The people have spoken -- the bastards," joked humorist Dick Tuck after losing a race for the California Legislature. In a democracy, no good can come from disparaging the electorate. But before they can ameliorate it, Republicans must understand where their problem is.

America's toes dangle over the edge of the fiscal cliff. Al-Qaida is resurgent. Yet today's electorate voted, narrowly, for a status quo polls say a majority finds unsatisfactory.

This flummoxes conservatives. It's as if we're standing on the deck of the Titanic. We see the iceberg dead ahead. But the other passengers are partying in the salon, blissfully unaware of what's about to happen.

Most Americans think the gravy train can't ever be derailed. Most politicians think they can keep whacking off hunks of the golden goose without ever killing it. All are in for a rude surprise.

Republicans must improve their messaging. Conservatives are right about its content. We must paint with bold colors, not pale pastels.

Moderates are right about tone. The most effective conservative I've ever known was Sen. Bill Armstrong of Colorado. He contended without being contentious. Bill never gave an inch on principle, but was regarded as a moderate, because his demeanor was.

But there is little Republicans can do to fix the larger part of their messaging problem, which Mitt Romney identified in a joke at the Al Smith dinner. The news media, he said, "have their job to do, and I have my job to do. My job is to lay out a positive vision for the future of the country, and their job is to make sure no one else finds out about it."

Few appreciate the imminence and likely consequences of the fiscal crisis mostly because the news media have told Americans so little about it. Unless something happens to shake millions from complacency, Republicans may never win another national election.

But weep not for the GOP. Weep for America. Catastrophe looms.

I was wildly premature, to put it kindly, when I wrote before the election of a "preference cascade." But once we go over the fiscal cliff, many who are complacent now will be confused, frightened, angry.

This will not be a time for half measures. It'll be too late then to prop up the welfare state. Many who voted this year for the status quo will be ready then to accept dramatic change.

If Republicans can keep their heads while all about them are losing theirs -- if they can explain, clearly but calmly, how we got into this mess and how to get out of it -- public attitudes and political allegiances could change as profoundly as after the stock market crash in 1929.

jackkelly

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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