After Barack Obama’s reelection, the Republicans went through the familiar soul-searching motions. If they had only been true to their conservative principles, they would have won the argument, and thus the election. Or maybe if they had moderated here and there, they would have swayed more independents. Maybe their policy platform was too radical. Maybe it was too stale. The postmortems covered nearly every angle, but according to David Horowitz, they were all beside the point: Republicans lost because they didn’t fight like Democrats, and in Take No Prisoners, he proposes to teach them how.
To Horowitz, the most significant structural disadvantage Republicans face is ultimately rooted in ideology. The left believes that it can fundamentally reshape society and that anyone standing in the way must be against all that is good and just. The right harbors no such delusions of grandeur: It has more modest expectations from politics and takes disagreements to be good-faith attempts to arrive at the better policy. So when a Republican tries to explain the merits of his policy proposal, a Democrat will neutralize his argument every time by accusing him of greed, cruelty, or bad faith.
When a Democrat goes on the offensive, however, the Republican retort is invariably insipid and unpersuasive. Democrats say, “The Republicans are defending the rich at your expense.” Republicans respond, “The Democrats are trying to divide us.” Democrats accuse Republicans of being anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-minority; Republicans, if they are bold, say that Democrats are liberal. Republicans offer policy points or political theory; Democrats drape themselves in moral authority. Unless they break out of this mold, Republicans face bleak prospects.
The way to win, according to Horowitz, is to take the offensive, to “turn their guns around. Fight fire with fire.” So far, so good. But by flipping the script too literally, Take No Prisoners sometimes falls short as a useful guide. Consider its advice on foreign policy. Historically, Republicans have had the advantage on national security issues, but they lost the high ground in Iraq when Democratic senators (such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton) turned against the war they had voted for. It became common currency on the left that the Bush administration “lied” while bringing America into war against Saddam Hussein. To turn the tables, according to Horowitz, Republicans should point out that Barack Obama “invaded Libya . . . unilaterally” and “lied about the cause.” Yet while Libya was certainly more than a “kinetic military action,” it was less than an invasion. The problem with President Obama’s foreign policy is not that he’s too unilateral but that he thinks he can lead from behind.
Horowitz devotes the most space to explaining how Republicans can go on the offensive on domestic issues. He’s on firmer ground here. Democrats have enjoyed one-party control of most major cities for the past half-century. So, Horowitz suggests, Republicans should make a moral case study out of places like Detroit: Put faces on the millions of schoolchildren trapped in failing schools by the alliance of teachers’ unions and Democratic politicians. Instead of criticizing welfare spending as “wasteful,” attack it as contributing to “morally repulsive, life-destroying programs that are inhuman and unjust.”
Are there land mines in this approach? The press is ready to use the thinnest pretense to portray Republicans as elitist or racist. “In a culture whose symbols have been defined by liberals,” Horowitz advised, “be careful when you go on the offensive.” It may well be impossible for Republicans to showcase the victims of liberal policies without implicitly condemning those victims. And while Horowitz’s prescription may not always pass the Hippocratic test, his diagnosis is sound: Republicans should set the terms and take the offensive; but rather than relitigate how Mitt Romney should have campaigned for the presidency, or try to flip timeworn Democratic tropes, Republicans should develop tropes of their own, specially designed for their likely opponents in 2016.
A Republican strategist would be well-advised to pair Take No Prisoners with Joel Kotkin’s newly released The New Class Conflict. Kotkin argues that the true class war is between the working class on one side, and the alliance of what he calls the Clerisy (media and government elites) and Oligarchs (tech billionaires) on the other. It would be interesting to see Republicans take up the cause of the oppressed against a self-interested, self-righteous elite. But to do that effectively, they’ll have to pick their targets with considerable prudence.
Max Eden is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.