Earlier this morning, AEI welcomed a packed house for its panel discussion Fusion or fissures: The future of a conservative governing coalition. The all-star cast of speakers engaged each other and the audience in a thoughtful, intellectual discussion of what the conservative movement should do from here.
Here’s the full video of the event. I definitely recommend watching it if you have the time, but if not look below for my highlights.
One thing that all the speakers agreed on was that the GOP and conservatives generally need to do a better job at conveying their beliefs. Specifically, they need to do so in a way that will not alienate minorities, young people, and women. The speakers emphasized the need for an aspirational, positive message.
As Ben Domenech said (paraphrased), “You can’t just rely on the bad economy to get people to come to you. You must have a narrative.” In Domenech’s view, the number one thing to take away from the 2012 election is that you must run someone who believes in the policies and ideology that he’s espousing and has the ability to articulate them persuasively. Mitt Romney did not fit that bill.
Another aspect of messaging that needs to be fixed is the party’s tendency to embrace “bumper-sticker” arguments. As Artur Davis said, the Romney campaign had great policy ideas (Davis particularly mentioned education), but nobody ever talked about them because they were too busy fitting “you didn’t build that” into their speeches. Conservatives must treat the electorate as adults if they want to win.
All the speakers agreed that Republicans must improve their standing among racial minorities, in particular Hispanics and Asian-Americans.
AEI’s Henry Olsen made the excellent point that the GOP’s biggest problem with outreach to these groups is simply that they don’t listen. Instead of listening to these folks and leaders in their communities, the GOP seems content to talk at them. You’ll never get their votes that way.
The speakers seemed to agree that Republicans should be open to comprehensive immigration reform, but not because this would automatically win them Hispanic votes. Rather, it’s a necessary move to have any chance with these voters whatsoever. A failure to do so would allow Democrats to continue to paint conservatives as “anti-immigrant” or “anti-multiculturalism,” which kills Republicans among Hispanics, Asians, and the youth.
Additionally, Artur Davis pointed out that there are some inconsistencies among conservatives regarding immigration. To take just one example, how can a party that claims to be pro-family not prioritize consolidating families in immigration reform?
By and large, the speakers rejected calls for the GOP to seriously change its policies. As one panelist pointed out, there is already a liberal political party—we don’t need another one.
The policy area that has come under the most scrutiny is the party’s stance on social issues. President Obama successfully rallied his base in large part by focusing on wedge social issues like abortion and gay marriage. But Mitt Romney failed to do anything similar for his base, leading to a false perception that the liberal position on these issues is more popular with the public.
In fact, as Artur Davis mentioned, only 13% of people agree with the Democratic platform on abortion, which is legal abortion anytime, anywhere, anyplace. The Democrats won’t even ban gender-specific abortion, a practice which most Americans find heinous.
Reihan Salam said that what critics of social conservatism don’t realize is that it’s a necessary and central part of the conservative philosophy. It pairs well with the GOP’s economic conservatism because it protects traditional values and societal stability in the face of the inevitable disruption that comes with the free market. Those disruptions are worth it because they increase our wealth and well-being, but those policies must be paired with social conservatism to minimize societal instability.
The panel seemed to agree with Artur Davis’s formulation: The GOP must be a conservative party, but it must be a conservative party that can win moderate voters and that is open to values not held by its base. Davis also left the audience with some reassurance by reminding them about a great truth about the political Left over the last 40 years: Given enough time and imagination, they will always overreach. Conservatives must be ready to step in when that happens.