For most of my life, a small minority of us Republicans (notably Newt Gingrich and Morton Blackwell, plus acolytes such as me) agitated, cajoled and worked for the day when our party would take seriously the “ground war”: not just running high level ad campaigns and hoping that ideas could motivate more people than the liberal unions and big city machines could turn out, but actually putting “boots on the ground” ourselves, precinct by precinct across the nation.
Virtually all of our fellow partisans laughed at us. It will never work, they said. It’s all about TV today: the unions are going away. And anyway, volunteer efforts are hard: ad buys are easy. Why make more work than necessary?
And so the conventional wisdom went (encouraged by highly-paid consultants who made their money on ad buys and didn’t want anyone thinking about grassroots). We argued this point year after year, to no avail, until the closeness of the 2000 election and the rise of Karl Rove forced the issue. And having then won our debate, our party won too: an historic mid-term in 2002 and a seemingly impossible sweep in 2004.
Which is where it all went awry.
Like kids with a new toy, our Republican leadership became mesmerized with their turnout program. It wasn’t just a playhouse: it could be a fort, it could be a spaceship, it could be a secret hideout for the cowboys fighting their toy Indians.
It could, in fact, be absolutely anything.
Anything except a message.
And that’s how the majority was lost.
Many others will write about Republicans’ shortcomings. They will properly intone that spending was the main issue, that the GOP’s branding centers on smaller government and that runaway spending made them look like hypocrites (to all the Hastert minions who claimed “we have to have earmarks so our members can get re-elected”, how’s that working for you, fellas?). Democrats in particular will point to Iraq, although Joe Liberman’s resounding defeat of MoveOn candidate Ned Lamont - in leftist Connecticut, no less - puts the lie to that.
Some of my evangelical friends will note that the 109th Congress basically ignored social issues for its first 18 months, a foolish thing indeed considering that Christians were the difference between victory and defeat in 2004 (and, come to think of it, in 2006). They will also note that the scandals hit home with - and drove away - values voters, as any sane person should have expected.
Ironies will abound.
I will leave all of that to them. The problem is more basic than that. With the zeal of converts, Republican leaders thought they’d found the magic bullet. They could ignore the big, visionary stuff that characterized Reagan-era campaigns - and Bush’s presidential runs too - because they could turn out the vote. Yea, on our conference calls, the leadership regaled us with the (genuinely amazing) number of person-to-person contacts they were generating - far more, in fact, than 2004 - and how all of this was going to save the day, or most of it anyway.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. A turnout effort cannot be better than the message motivating the turnout. This is Rule Number One.
For most of two years - and on certain things longer than that - Republican Congressional leaders settled for a message of “those Democrats are worse than we are” and “look at our new toy”. They pointed out that Democrats had no ideas and that you can’t beat something with nothing. It never occurred to them that Democrats might beat nothing with nothing.
But make no mistake: there’s much hope for conservatives in this. There’s no question now that ideas are central, and that conservative voters judge us by how we enact our principles. The turnout effort has been entrenched, but put in perspective: it will be more effective than ever in 2008. Lots of northeastern RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) were knocked off, most notably the abominable Lincoln Chaffee: our brand name will not suffer from their presence anymore.
And perhaps most of all, the Democrats who won largely ran as conservatives: they “got” the meaning of 2004 better than Hastert and Frist. Coupled with the victory of marriage amendments across America, the conservative realignment is not in doubt.
But the Republican leadership is very much in doubt. That’s what voters repudiated Tuesday night. And it’s a pure opportunity. We’ve needed a good housecleaning for some time. Now we have our chance to get it.