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Morning Jay: Previewing the GOP's 2012 Message

6:00 AM, Nov 18, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Earlier this month, I looked at the Democratic campaign argument. Today, I’m going to look more closely at the GOP’s.

Obama rally II

The "campaign argument" is the pitch that both sides make about why you should for vote them. Put aside your own partisan inclinations, and you usually can tell when one side has the better argument than the other – e.g. the Democrats in 1996 and the Republicans in 1984. Sometimes, it’s hard to make that judgment, as in 2000 or 2004, when I think the two sides had equally strong arguments.

The campaign argument that the Republican party will make next year should be the most powerful it has had since 1988. Let’s break it down into three parts: the thesis, the points of attack, and the themes.

The thesis will be very straightforward. The Republicans will assert that the country’s election of President Obama in 2008 was indeed a hopeful moment that said great things about the United States. However, it is time to face the reality, which is that the Obama experiment has actually made things worse. We need somebody more able to tackle the big problems we face, and that’s why we should vote for (insert GOP nominee here).

It's important to keep in mind that this is an argument designed to appeal to those independent voters who swing elections, many of whom voted for Obama in 2008. Watch the Republicans implicitly validate their 2008 choice as they urge them to make the change.

As for the points of attack, look for three big ones.

1. The president has failed to solve the economic crisis. This one pretty much explains itself. I noted in my piece on the Democratic argument that President Obama will emphasize inputs – i.e. all of the things he has done to solve the problem. In contrast, the GOP will emphasize outputs – i.e. the actual economic numbers.

Even if the topline numbers on the economy improve, it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between the economy as we read about it in the newspapers (e.g. the quarterly GDP number) and the economy as we live it every day (e.g. whether you know people out of work, whether your pay has increased). The latter is what the Republicans will focus on.

2. The president’s policies have made things worse for the average family. The conventional wisdom is that Mitt Romney will have trouble running against Obamacare because his Massachusetts health care plan is so similar. Nonsense. The angles that Romney will pursue, should he win the nomination, will all be non-ideological and focus relentlessly on three specfic problems with the bill: cuts to Medicare, the possibility that people will lose their health insurance, and the possibility that their premiums will increase. The major points against Obamacare will likely avoid the philosophical argument about big government vs. small government. Instead, the focus will be on quality and cost.

Beyond health care, there are plenty of different ways to connect Obama’s policies to the average person’s standard of living. Here are just a couple:

-Obama’s tax hike proposals would hurt small business.

-Obama’s cap and trade program would cost the average family hundreds of dollars a year, and slow the economy down.

-Obama’s killing (or delay) of an oil pipeline project is going to keep your fuel costs up.

-The stimulus will have a net negative effect on GDP over the next decade.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much material to work with. From Labor Day to Election Day, the Republican message mavens could probably come up with a different theme every week, connecting some Obama policy (proposed or enacted, it doesn’t matter) that has made or would make life worse for the average family. And remember: This is not proving it in a court of law, it's about making a case for the campaign, where facts can be "fuzzy." Democrats will complain, but let's just call it karmic payback for Obama, who ran an ad blasting Billy Tauzin's connection to PhARMA, then eventually made a deal with him. It doesn't get more cynical than that.

3. The president’s policies have made the deficit worse. Do not underestimate the shock value of a $15 trillion dollar deficit. It will provoke a visceral reaction among independent voters, one that the GOP will exploit for maximum effect.

As for the themes, I count four big ones. 

A. The GOP will use Obama’s own words against him. For somebody who rose to national prominence because of his speaking abilities, this president sure is gaffe prone. And there are plenty of statements that Obama has made on the record over the years that the GOP will be able to juxtapose against his own policies. Remember these?

            -You don’t raise taxes in a recession.

            -If I can’t fix the economy in three years, I’ll be a one-term president.

            -America has gone soft.

            -If you like your health insurance, you can keep it.

            -This (in)famous chart.

Again, just like Obama’s policies, there is a seemingly endless supply of these…ahem…unfortunate clips.

B. The GOP will emphasize pragmatism. This is not going to be a Goldwater-esque campaign that rails against creeping socialism. Instead, watch for the GOP to mimic Ronald Reagan, focusing on the most personal question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Cultural issues will accordingly be placed in the background as the party tries to build the broadest coalition it can.

C. The GOP will be vague. This one is a no brainer. FDR’s 1932 campaign was relatively light on the specifics (check out his 1932 nomination address for an example). And why not? Getting specific was bound to alienate voters who were already disposed against Herbert Hoover. Similarly, the GOP nominee will offer the vaguest possible plan that he can get away with. Democrats will complain, of course, but again, call it karma: Obama blasted the individual mandate in the 2008 campaign, then turned around and made it the centerpiece of his health care reform.

D. The GOP message will be focus grouped to death. Republican pollsters are going to pinpoint the most “gettable” voters, and the media mavens will craft a strategy around their focus groups. Again, Democrats will complain, but have you noticed that the phrase “tax increase” has been dropped from the lexicon, and in its place you have “revenue adjustments”? That buzzword was cooked up in some DNC focus group somewhere, I can assure you! Similarly, the GOP will test different ways to deliver this strategy to the most gettable voters for maximum effect.

***

Will all of this work? I think so – if the party picks the right nominee, and that person executes it well. I haven’t seen such a powerful GOP argument since 1988. Really, the script writes itself.

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