Michael Steele, then-chair of the Republican National Committee, criticized Obama’s stimulus plan as “a wish list from a lot of people who have been on the sidelines for years … to get a little bling, bling.” Steele, who wanted to expand the GOP’s appeal to young voters, used the expression to, in Steele’s words, “take the party to the streets,” while making the GOP more “relevant” to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”
In 2008, Obama took 66 percent of the 18-to-29-year-old vote, and 60 percent in 2012. To broaden the GOP’s appeal, consultants hold forums, town halls and focus groups to figure out ways to attract the youth vote. Is it the core message — low taxes, low regulation, secure boarders and strong national security — that young voters find off-putting? Is it the messenger? Former Democratic Chair Howard Dean once referred to the GOP as the “white” party.
An April 2013 Washington Post/ABC News poll found 65 percent of young people thought the Republican Party was “out of touch.” Only 47 percent considered the Democratic Party “out of touch.” Focus groups find young voters, largely because of the GOP position on abortion and same-sex marriage, dismiss the GOP as the party that “tells people how to live their lives.”
Blame the GOP, in large part, for either being confused on its approach to social issues or confused on how to talk about them. On domestic issues, the GOP should be the “federalism,” growth and empowerment party. Social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and drugs, where the U.S. Constitution is silent, are state matters to be fought at the state level — not matters addressed by the federal government.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Republican appointee and arguably the most conservative justice, said the courts lack the expertise and judgment to resolve issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and doctor-assisted suicide.
Scalia argues that such issues are state matters: “On controversial issues on stuff like homosexual rights, abortion, we debate with each other and persuade each other and vote on it either through representatives or a constitutional amendment. … Whether it’s good or bad is not my job. My job is simply to say if those things you find desirable are contained in the Constitution.”
Social issues are important, but it’s still the economy, stupid. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, capturing 44 states. When he ran for re-election, he won 49 states. Did he win two landslide elections because he converted the country into embracing all of his positions? Of course not. A September 1984 New York Times article lead with this headline: “Polls Show Many Choose Reagan Even If They Disagree With Him.” Reagan supported an amendment to ban abortion. Most Americans disagreed. On abortion, the Times wrote, “Half of those who disagree with Mr. Reagan on abortion say they plan to vote for him, while only 38 percent of them say they will vote for Mr. Mondale.”
Did the Great Communicator effectively convey his empathy, his heart and his compassion? No, not compared to his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale: “Significantly,” wrote the Times, “71 percent said yes when asked if Mr. Mondale ‘cares about people like you;’ 56 percent said that of Mr. Reagan.” On the issue of “caring,” advantage to Mondale.
So what was it? The Times provides an explanation: “There is clear evidence in the (New York Times/CBS News) poll that the economy is a critical issue in the campaign.” On the economy, the poll asked about unemployment, inflation, the deficit and interest rates. Of those naming “unemployment” as most important, half planned to vote for Reagan. “But among the two-thirds who cited one of the other three problems,” the Times said, “Reagan supporters outnumbered Mondale supporters by margins of greater than 2 to 1.”
At its nadir, the recession Reagan inherited reached 10.8 percent unemployment, 21.5 percent prime interest rate and 13.5 percent inflation. Reagan turned this around with a combination of tax cuts, deregulation and slower domestic spending, assisted by a Federal Reserve determined to rein in inflation. His economic record, as of 1984, convinced voters — who otherwise disagreed with him on many issues — to give him a nearly 50-state sweep.
The party that says the federal government should butt out of social issues — the Republican Party — is the party that “tells us how to live our lives”? The party that tells an inner-city parent where her child will attend school, the party that attempts to stop you from drinking a sugary beverage from a big cup — the Democratic Party — is the party of empathy and compassion?
Reagan, like the people who wrote the Constitution, believed in federalism, that any power not specified in the Constitution resides with the people and the states. President Barack Obama criticizes Congress for “failing to act” on gun control. Yet he recently praised states like Colorado and California for taking action. That’s called state action, Mr. President. It’s how our republic is designed to work.
Larry Elder is a best-selling author and radio talk-show host.