Following the 2012 election -- when the Republican Party lost the White House, lost three seats in the Senate, lost eight seats in the House, and lost the national vote for Congress members -- the soul-searching began. Republican governors meeting in Las Vegas were first to speak up, and there was some surprisingly open criticism.
"We need to have a brutal, brutally honest assessment of everything we did. We need to take everything apart ... and determine what we did that worked and what we did that didn't work."
- Haley Barbour, former governor, (R-MS)
"We need to figure out what we did right and what we did wrong, how we can improve our tone, our message, our technology, our turnout -- all the things that are required to win elections."
- Gov. Bob McConnell, (R-VA)
"We've also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters...[and] stop being the stupid party."
- Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) to Politico
For too long, dealing with reality has not been the GOP's strong point. It was during the Bush administration, after all, that a senior White House adviser chastised Democrats for living in the "reality-based community" and told journalist Ron Susskind that neoconservatives "create our own reality." Unfortunately, voters create a reality that supersedes fantasy. And so it is with a great sense of irony that the presumed source of this quote, Karl Rove, not only predicted a Romney landslide and wasted $390 million with no positive results, but spent election night on Fox News freaking out to get their hosts and statisticians to change real numbers.
That's why the sentiments by Republican governors is such a worthy step.
The problem, you see, is most of what they're talking about is strategy, tactics and style. Not policy. If the Republican Party had won the election, do you think there would be any questioning of "dumbed-down conservatism"? We would have heard about mandates and how it was all a denunciation of Barack Obama. And the message would have been exactly the same. The same as the one that lost.
The closest anyone came was Gov. Jindal, who told Politico, "We've got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything. We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys."
That's a strong, clear eye and honest voice. But all it says is what the Republican Party should not be. Nothing about what they should stand for. And that's a far more difficult challenge. For if the GOP is not about big business, big banks, big oil, big pharma, what are they willing to tell party members and Americans they are about? And how do they convince party members that what they've been selling them for the last 20 years has been wrong.
Without that, all this soul-searching is just empty words.
The more you look, the more apparent it becomes that Republicans just don't get it. This is clear when seen through GOP eyes of why they believe they lost.
It's not my words. It's what they say themselves:
"[Democrats] spent all their time making Mitt Romney unacceptable and making him out to be someone who was untrustworthy and unacceptable to enough of the American people - and it worked."
- Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA)
"[Obama's] whole campaign was a fear-and-smear attack to make Romney unacceptable..."
- Haley Barbour, former governor, R-Mississippi
(That was so unfair of Democrats. Republicans would never dream of doing it to Barack Obama. Making him out to be untrustworthy and unacceptable to the American people. That was never their "whole campaign." Just their "#1 Priority" for four years. The difference is, it didn't work.)
"We didn't have effective means by which to counter the attacks the Obama-Biden campaign took against Mitt Romney and his team. I just don't think you can let that go unanswered."
-- Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI)
(Usually, "the truth" and "facts" are effective means to counter attacks against you. But as Gov. Walker notes, when you don't have those at your disposal, you have to leave them unanswered.)
"We were in a big fight. We came with a knife; they came with a gun. "
-- Bob Bennett, former education secretary under Ronald Reagan
(Republicans came to this fight with $1.2 billion. That's not a "knife," that's the GDP of many small nations. Their campaign tried pummeling President Obama as a socialist who was destroying America and got a U.S. Ambassador killed. They came heavily armed.)
"[Romney's] campaign was largely about his biography and his experience. But time and time again, biography and experience is not enough to win an election."
-- Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA)
(First of all, Mitt Romney's campaign ran far away from his experience with Bain and most of his experience as a one-term governor. Secondly, voters want to hear details and specific proposals, which were absent from the campaign -- not biography that your grandfather moved to Mexico so he could stay married to multiple women.)
"We're in a death spiral with Hispanic voters because of rhetoric around immigration,"
-- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
(Yeah, that's the problem. "Rhetoric." Not actual efforts by Republicans to build a literal wall between Mexico and the U.S. Or actual statutes like the "papers, please" law in Arizona. Or Republicans actually refusing to pass the Dream Act. Just rhetoric. Perhaps it would help if they simply said it nicer. "Senor, May I Have Your Papers, por favor.")
"The president's campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift...He made a big effort on small things."
-- Mitt Romney, Republican nominee for president
(By contrast, Mr. Romney chose to ignore 47 percent of the country, and instead offer a massive $5 trillion tax cut gift that most-benefited the wealthiest Americans. Apparently, it helps to pay attention to voters. Who knew? I guess you figure that sort of thing out when you've been a community organizer...)
Republicans are right to try and find a way to appeal to a majority of the American public. But to do that, you can't keep living in the bubble you've built for yourself that keeps out reality.
They still don't get it.
On one level, the election was close. But looking more carefully, it wasn't nearly as close as it seems. A presidential race is solely run for electoral votes -- and Barack Obama won 332-206. And in the midst of the second worst recession in American history, with unemployment hovering around 8 percent, Democrats won the White House, gained seats in the Senate and House, and won the national vote for Congress.
It wasn't because of gifts. It wasn't because of making Mitt Romney unacceptable, it wasn't about biography, it wasn't Hurricane Sandy, it wasn't because of strategy.
It was because after four years of saying that the President of the United States was a socialist, Nazi, terrorist, Kenyan traitor who was destroying the country, Republicans living in their bubble had pushed their party so far to the right that they believed their own story. And the rest of America saw reality differently.