GOP Must Be for Something or Be Gone

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gives his concession speech at his election night
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gives his concession speech at his election night rally in Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

For those of us who follow real news and actual facts about the election, it was no big surprise that Barack Obama outlasted Mitt Romney to win a second term. David Plouffe ran a disciplined, micro-targeted closing four weeks that pushed every swing state in the direction of the President, mobilized another historic turnout, and kept the party on message to bring home the prize. Mitt Romney, by contrast, sank deeper and deeper into desperation after a brief, albeit limited, post Denver surge. Game, set, match, Obama.

And this brings us to the GOP.

Basically, the GOP the day after Romney's loss is the party equivalent of an ocean front house on the Jersey Shore after the Sandy storm surge swept through. They are still there, but the election washed them off their foundation and scattered everything that used to be inside to the four winds--even that old stuff in boxes above the work table in the garage. Trying to clean up would be futile. The time has come to acknowledge the cataclysmic scope of the disaster, grieve for a short time, and then start over from the ground up.

Where to begin?

My advice is focused on one particular aspect of the current party: The GOP must be for something or it will never recoup.

Think about this: In every policy area, the current incarnation of the GOP does not advocate for, but against. Republicans in 2012 do not talk about building a future, they obsess over dismantling aspects of American Society that have been with us for decades. Republicans are not "conservatives" in the sense of wanting to keep what is good here. They are just demolitionists obsessed with gutting, sledge hammering, and knocking down.

The result of this policy approach is an internal party culture in the GOP that is pessimistic verging on depressing. Republicans do not draw voters into their vision, so much as they trap voters in an endless cycle of grousing.

Just about only thing that Republicans talk about in positive terms is Ronald Reagan--but even that hagiographic narrative has a bitter tone to it. "Things were so much better under Reagan," Republicans say. Or: "There will never be another like Reagan."

Reagan for Republicans is no longer a positive symbol. He is now the hero in an endless lament about a world overrun by debt, government, and liberal debauchery. No wonder the GOP base was so fickle about their nominees. The slightest hint of Reagan-esque charisma sent flocks of GOP running to this candidate or that, only to be disappointed when the newest flash in the pan turned out to be less-than by comparison to the distorted memory of Saint Ronald.

I cannot help but ask: What is it that Republicans want to actually do? I know what they want to undo--but what do they want to do?

This was a huge part of Mitt Romney's problem. "On day one," Romney would say in his stump speeches,"I will dismantle Obamacare" and unravel the tax code and gut business regulation and slash Medicare and cut loose Social Security and open public lands to drilling, etc., etc. Given power, Romney had no blueprint for building anything that he wanted to start following. He just wanted to stop things that were long running.

All this pessimism--all this cutting and gutting--it can garner about 25% of the vote for the GOP, maybe more in some districts. But it cannot get them a majority of the vote in a national election because voters want to believe in something, not just stand around and grouse.

Consider, for example, the GOP position on science. Maybe talking about science as if it is some liberal conspiracy is a good way to get partisan crowds to cheer or a good way to seed fake debates on a FOX news show. But it does not give people a sense of being apart of something larger than themselves--of joining a party that has a payoff of accomplishment at the end.

Moreover, no child makes decisions about their future based on grousing about science. Nobody says "When I grow up I want to complain about science." So, the GOP narrative of demolition fails to provide a big story inside of which young people can see themselves for a lifetime.

Now, if you present this critique to Republicans in your family or network of friends, it is very likely that you will elicit nothing but rants and raves about Obama and debt, about how the country will soon be worse than Greece, and about how "government" should not have a role in our lives. All these responses are symptomatic.

"What is the GOP for--what do they want to do, as opposed to undo? Why would a growing number of people want to be a part of a movement built on pessimism and demolition?"

It is unlikely that anything approaching an answer will emerge.

The larger problem, therefore, is that allegiance to the GOP has become less about ideas than a way of responding negatively to anything that smacks of vision or achievement by government.

This issue, I believe, has a far greater implication than whatever problems the GOP may be causing for itself at the level of how its members talk about women, cultural diversity, and religion.

It is possible, for example, to build a far-reaching, uplifting political narrative grounded in the idea that religious principles form an integral part of American democracy. One could argue that Martin Luther King, Jr., did just that. The GOP does the opposite: religion becomes a way of grousing about all the things in contemporary America that need to be demolished.

The same for women's issues and questions of race or diversity. Democrats speak about these issues as a way of talking about the hopes and challenges of building the future. Republicans, by contrast, talk about them within a broader lament about how bad things are now compared to how they used to be. "Tear down affirmative action," "Get rid of Title IX,"--these are the cries of a party that cannot talk about social issues in a positive light because it has no positive mode in its vocabulary.

What do you want to build? What will you do if given the opportunity to lead?

None of the leading lights of the GOP know how to talk this way anymore.

Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan, arguably the heirs apparent to the GOP 2016 field, are candidates whose entire modus operandi consists of talking demolition. What does Rick Santorum want to build? Nothing. He is obsessed with tearing things down. What does Paul Ryan want to build? Zilch. He spends all his time complaining about the things we need to dump.

Mitt Romney, for all the wealth and jobs and opportunity he supposedly created in the career that made him a millionaire many times over--he was never able to talk about the GOP vision in a way that would get people excited about building the future.

Be for something or be gone. That is the choice facing the GOP the morning after the re-election of President Barack Obama.

Ready it or not, Republicans, the bulldozers are on their way.