- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Conservatives need to face it squarely: We lost the argument. Voters gave us a hearing, gave us the opportunity to make our case, then decided they didn’t trust us to solve their problems any more than they did a president who passed legislation they didn’t like, by means they didn’t approve of, behaved recklessly with the nation’s finances, and seemed uninterested in working with the opposition. We need to take ownership of losing the argument rather than taking refuge in excuses or despairing for the future.
Foreign policy was not the fulcrum of this election, but it did matter, and in ways that helped President Obama. Governor Romney is a pragmatic, problem-solving politician who failed to believe he could be elected as one, and adopted an amalgam of policies to cast him in Ronald Reagan’s mold. But amidst the mythologizing of Reagan on the right, we ought to consider whether Reagan’s national security stance would make sense in our current conditions: When our defense budget is half the world’s total, when an actual peer able to contest American primacy is fifteen or twenty years in the future, when our people are weary of all we’ve undertaken and discouraged at how little help other countries have been, when our economy is shaky and its recovery slow and household incomes pinched, when we are poised to ask Americans worried about the future to receive less from government retirement and medical programs.
Conservatives talk an awful lot about the public losing its commitment to defense spending, and Governor Romney outlined an increase to 4 percent of GDP even as government spending contracts, while the president kept repeating the importance of nation building at home. We ought perhaps to consider that our taxpayers simply aren’t persuaded by our arguments that the world is so dangerous or our defense spending too low. Looking at what we have spent across the past decade, and the cost-exchange ratio we are experiencing with our enemies, they may not be wrong. Voters are worried about the state of our union, appear willing to accept near-term risk in national security in order to gain more near-term confidence in our domestic security. It’s not an irresponsible choice, given how wide our margin for error is on national security issues and the multiplicity of means beyond military we have to affect them.
The president more accurately read the public mood about the wars than conservatives, too. We Republicans are savagely and rightly critical of President Obama’s handling of both Iraq and Afghanistan. But voters don’t want to hear it from the people who lost the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the first time, even if we righted the ship on Iraq. The cost of our mistakes remains fresh in the public mind, and Team Obama got lots of mileage off the trope about returning to office the same people who made the mistakes in the first place. Maybe if we sounded less strident about going to war they would trust our judgment more; but maybe our credibility problem will persist until all of us with connections to the Bush administration are purged from the rolls of future administrations.
We can celebrate that we have won half the argument about the direction of our country: we have pushed debt into the center of political discourse. Voters are worried about our national insolvency, understand it is constraining our ability to fix our problems and sure to lead to even worse problems unless we take corrective action. But we were implausible in our policies. We insisted defense must increase and emphasized growing dangers that will demand more wars. We railed about the Obama administration’s defense cuts when our alternative in the House included the same reductions. We criticized the president for not embracing Bowles-Simpson but didn’t vote for it ourselves. After arguing debt’s centrality, we flatly rejected deals that would have a ten to one cuts to spending ratio. We sounded unsympathetic to our fellow Americans receiving government assistance. Voters considered us right in our descriptions, but reckless or mean in our prescriptions. Perhaps we ought to return to the idea of compassionate conservatism as we frame and argue for our policies. We need more Paul Ryan, not less: Details and principles did get traction, but we didn’t have the consistency across our policies to build voters’ confidence.
One of the most grevious mistakes of the Bush administration was to assert by executive order what could have been achieved legislatively; it made solutions more brittle and less enduring not to reach for broad public support. In some senses, it feels like we conservatives may be making a similar mistake of asserting what we believe should be done on national security issues instead of listening more to what limits our public wants to place on what we will do and negotiating solutions that don’t overwhelm voters.
I urge caution on our Democratic opponents: You ought to be worried that with all its problems, the Republican party captured 48 percent of voters nationwide. And you ought to remind yourselves that every single member of the House of Representatives just got reelected, too; the president isn’t the only politician returned to office. That’s not a mandate, it’s an invitation to compromise.