There is an old retailing adage; you can’t sell out of an empty wagon.
It’s a truth that cuts across politics as well, and it drives to the heart of the organized Republican Party’s problems in that last twenty years, and by extension, the larger conservative movement.
The party has been in the bromide business, peddling soundbites and delivering very little of what it promises.
Even in victory, the party is organizationally spineless and inept. Worse, the party refuses to fight for its distinctive core message, abandoned to a compulsion to appear acceptable to a media complex that will obviously never love them anyway.
Yesterday the Republican Party in Virginia lost its already paper-thin majorities in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, handing Governor Ralph (Blackface) Northam the opportunity to change the Commonwealth’s political landscape for a generation or more through redistricting.
Ironically, this is same Governor who was knee-deep in a repugnant racial scandal which the Republicans refused to press to their advantage – they won’t fight. Then only days later the Commonwealth’s Lt. Governor, Democrat Justin Fairfax, was accused of rape by two women, both Democrats, and the Republicans again passed on both their responsibility and their political opportunity, only proving the charge of Republican ineptness.
It’s heartbreaking to see the possibility of Virginia turning into just another high-tax, over-regulated, corrupt cesspool like her Northeastern neighbors, but elections have consequences. Getting beat-up at the ballot box results in radical Democrats doubling down for a fight; for Republicans it’s an opportunity for intensive introspection on how to be more like their opponents or more craven.
There will be plenty of time for reproaches, second-guessing, and teeth-grinding in the days ahead. The “it’s Trump’s fault” crowd is already out there banging pans.
But for myself, I keep going back to a pattern set in place with the loss of George Allen’s senate seat in 2006, and the infamous “macaca” moment which transformed the public perception of Mr. Allen’s judgement (and by extension the party), and proved the margin for the election of James Webb – and more directly the 2009 election of Bob McDonnell as Governor.
Mr. McDonnell won the election against a weak Democrat State Senator, Creigh Deeds, on a “Bob for Jobs” campaign that emphasized a fairly traditional approach to economic moderation.
However, in 2013 then Governor McDonnell entered into a politically bizarre round of negotiations over dedicated “transportation” taxes to fund road construction projects designed to ease chronic traffic congestion. The negotiations essentially turned into a political free-for-all – a circus – and it wasn’t lost on the public that the Democratic leadership rolled the GOP, turning what was originally a $2 billion bill into a $6 billion boondoggle, which the Governor signed.
On the heels of this fiasco, the Governor fell into scandal and charges of corruption, which in the final analysis, turned more to matters of extremely poor judgment than law. But the damage was done, and it’s hard not to think the pattern of these events set in the public’s mind. How they saw Republicans changed for a good reason.
Regardless, the party never responded in a coherent message on what it does and doesn’t stand for, and perhaps that’s the real lesson. During these same years, the party cowered as a popularly elected State Party Chairman was railroaded out of office by the soft-shoe boys in Richmond, who like to control a dead party more than they care about being only a part of a winning party.
Time after time, the party has refused to entertain programs presented to it to identify affinity groups across the state that remain under-registered, track voter eligibility and voting issues, and other plans to identify and work in the large immigrant population in Virginia, now nearing twenty percent of the vote.
It’s an amazing paradox in one way; the party of economic and personal freedom loses in immigrant and ethnic communities who came to the U.S. ostensibly looking for those very freedoms, to the socialist party that seeks to diminish all freedom. The reason for losing these votes seems simple enough; the organized party and the conservative movement won’t tell the story of how human liberty and economic prosperity are what make America the unique “city on a hill.”
But, again, is this surprising for a party that can’t defund PBS, Planned Parenthood, or even defend the common sense that little boys and little girls shouldn’t have to share the same bathroom?
The Republican Party, as dysfunctional as it is, can still win, even in Virginia. But it can’t win without fighting. And it can’t win without filling up the wagon with the goods that it has to sell – telling the story of the Republic, defending its premise, celebrating its prosperity and goodness, and fighting for human liberty everywhere in every way.