Nothing’s impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
Start all over again.
— From the 1936 movie “Swing Time”
WASHINGTON — Conservatives should jauntily sing as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did in a year in which the country’s chin was on the ground. Conservatives are hardly starting from scratch in their continuing courtship of an electorate half of which embraced their message more warmly than it did this year’s messenger.
The election’s outcome was foreshadowed by Mitt Romney struggling as long as he did to surmount a notably weak field of Republican rivals. His salient deficiency was not of character but of chemistry, that indefinable something suggested by the term empathy. Many voters who thought he lacked this did not trust him to employ on their behalf what he does not lack, economic understanding.
On Feb. 11, 2011, the person who should have been the Republican nominee laconically warned conservatives about a prerequisite for persuading people to make painful adjustments to a rickety entitlement state. Said Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels: “A more affirmative, ‘better angels’ approach to voters is really less an aesthetic than a practical one. With apologies for the banality, I submit that, as we ask Americans to join us on such a boldly different course, it would help if they liked us, just a bit.” Romney was a diligent warrior. Next time, Republicans need a more likable one.
And one who tilts toward the libertarian side of the Republican Party’s fusion of social and laissez-faire conservatism. Most voters already favor less punitive immigration policies than the ones angrily advocated by clenched-fist Republicans unwilling to acknowledge that immigrating — risking uncertainty for personal and family betterment — is an entrepreneurial act. The speed with which civil unions and same-sex marriage have become debatable topics and even mainstream policies is astonishing. As is conservatives’ failure to recognize this: They need not endorse such policies but neither need they despise those, such as young people, who favor them. And it is strange for conservatives to turn a stony face toward any reconsideration of drug policies, particularly concerning marijuana, which confirm conservatism’s warnings about government persistence in the teeth of evidence.
With much work — the most painful sort: thinking — to be done, conservatives should squander no energy on recriminations. Romney ran a gallant campaign. Imitation is the sincerest form of politics, and Republicans should emulate Democrats’ tactics for locating and energizing their voters. Liberals have an inherent but not insuperable advantage: As enthusiasts of government, to which many of them are related as employees or clients, they are more motivated for political activity than are conservatives, who prefer private spaces. Never mind. Conservatives have a commensurate advantage: Americans still find congenial conservatism’s vocabulary of skepticism about statism. And events — ongoing economic anemia; the regulatory state’s metabolic urge to bully — will deepen this vocabulary’s resonance.
It is frequently said and probably true that many people are more informed when picking a refrigerator than when picking a president. This may, however, be rational ignorance because the probability of any individual’s vote mattering to an election’s outcome is negligible compared to the effort required to acquire information and vote. (Elections are run by governments, so it is unwise to expect them to be run well, but really: Are hours-long waits at polling places inevitable?) Fortunately, the electoral vote system, by requiring 51 presidential elections, multiplies the chances of competitive contests and of votes with magnified importance.
As the stakes of politics increase with government’s size, so does voter engagement. And 2012 redundantly proved what 2010 demonstrated. The 2010 elections, the first after the Supreme Court’s excellent Citizens United decision liberalized the rules about funding political advocacy, were especially competitive. Social science confirms what common sense suggests: More spending on political advocacy means more voter information and interest. The approximately $2 billion spent in support of this year’s presidential candidates — only about two-thirds as much as Procter & Gamble spent on U.S. advertising last year — surely contributed to the high turnout in targeted states.
Media and other “nonpartisan” — please, no chortling — dismay about “too much money in politics” waned as seven of the 10 highest-spending political entities supported Democrats and outspent the three supporting Republicans, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The advocacy infrastructure that is being developed by both sides in the post-Citizens United world will, over time, favor the most plausible side, which conservatives know is theirs.