Alex Massie

Lessons for 2012 from 2010: GOP Edition

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Reihan Salam has a very good column on GOP tactics and oportunities that I heartily recommend. He concludes:

The Democrats have offered a series of bloated, heavy-handed bills to tackle real problems facing the economy, and Republicans have been right to take them to task. But they're now in a position to offer more cost-effective, scalpel-like proposals of their own that can demonstrate their readiness to govern. And besides, Republicans will still be well within their rights to criticize the Democrats for their major missteps in 2009—President Obama spent most of his 2008 presidential campaign running against George W. Bush's first term. If Republicans choose not to pivot, if they instead continue to rely exclusively on scorched-earth opposition, they'll find that victories in 2010 won't translate into victories in 2012, when the electorate will be larger and more inclined to elect problem-solvers and not bomb-throwers.

Emphasis added. Andrew isn't much persuaded by this, but I think Reihan has a point. Several points, in fact.

Messaging matters in politics, but so does timing. Suppose the Republican leadership had worked with the White House this past year to craft a health care bill that, though opposed by both the purer elements of both right and left, could pass the House and Senate; suppose too that this bill actually worked. Who gets the credit for that? Not the Republican party or Republican candidates across the country, that's who. No, it would be the President's triumph and his alone. (I'm assuming, for the sake of this argument that the bill would have covered 30m Americans, controlled or lowered costs etc.) It's Obama who would have reaped the electoral rewards from this process. So what, rationally, does it profit the Republican party to help him achieve that aim?

You might argue that this is a form of political nihilism or that it's putting party before the national interest and you might well have a point. But the country is, much of the time, a secondary concern. Parties exist to win elections and then - and only then - take measures they believe are in the national interest. Helping the other mob win isn't part of their brief.

But that only works until the mid-terms. After that, as Reihan says, you gotta pivot. Scorched-earth is a temporary policy forced upon you by unfavourable circumstances and your own need to retreat and regroup. It can buy time and weaken the enemy before the counter-attack but it's not, and cannot be, the counter-attack itself. It's tactics, not strategy.

One assumes that (most of) the likely Presidential candidates appreciate this. If they don't they need to see how Republicans have won gubernatorial contests since elections to executive positions, unlike legislative contests, cannot, except in the rarest of cases, be won on a platform emphasising preventative measures alone.

The difficulty - or one potential difficulty anyway - the GOP faces is that what enthuses the base may alienate or repel other voters. Striking a balance between outreach and mainaining core enthusiasm may prove a tricky proposition. The actual convention in 2012 will be, one imagines, well-enough controlled to prevent a repeat of the 1992 disaster but it's not impossible to imagine a scenario in which the spirit of that convention finds a fresh voice in the party in 2012 and that this will be the environment in which the entire GOP campaign takes place.

If so, that risks alienating the moderate voters (especially women) that the party will need to win in 2012. Taken to its extreme, this might require the candidate to put a little distance between his platform and that of the grass-roots - a strategy that while bound to be popular with the Washington Post is also fraught with risk. Dog whistles to the base are fine, but the winning candidate most probably can't be out in front leading the marching band.

So, Reihan is right: 2010 and 2012 are very different contests decided by different voters. Success in the first does not necessarily mean success in the second must follow. They require different approaches.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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