WASHINGTON — The 2012 election was a substantial victory not only for President Obama but for liberalism. Obama built his campaign on abortion rights and higher taxes for the wealthy. He was rewarded by an electorate that was younger, more pro-choice and more racially diverse than in 2008. The Obama coalition is not a fluke; it is a force.
Some conservatives have reacted in the tradition of Cicero: “Oh the times! Oh the customs!” “We’ve lost the country,” concluded Rush Limbaugh, which he described as a “country of children.” “There is no hope,” said Ann Coulter. Added Bill O’Reilly: “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”
As a matter of strategy, it is generally not a good idea to express disdain for an electorate one hopes to eventually influence. In this case, despair is also an overreaction. Conservatives have not witnessed the sacking of Rome. They have seen the disappointment of their expectation that the 2010 Republican wave election was an inexorable trend. They have seen politically unfavorable demographic changes — which everyone knew were coming sooner or later — come sooner. They have seen younger voters grow more libertarian on some social issues.
These changes call for another, more hopeful conservative tradition — that of Edmund Burke. He saw social change as a constant. The goal was to ease a nation’s way through change while retaining what is strongest in its traditions. Burke insisted that the present was better than the past, and that the future could be better still if change were grounded in a society’s basic character. And he believed that politics had to suit a society’s real circumstances, not an idealized version of them.
This is the conservative task over the next few years: Not the preservation of a rigid ideology but the reconstruction of a political appeal along improved but principled lines.
Some of the most important intellectual groundwork is needed on the role of government. Mitt Romney had a five-part plan to encourage job creation. He lacked a public philosophy that explained government’s valid role in meeting human needs. Suburban women heard little about improved public education. Single women, particularly single mothers, heard little about their struggles — apart from an off-putting Republican critique of food stamps. Blue-collar workers in, say, Ohio heard little about the unique challenges of declining industrial communities. Latinos heard little from Republicans about promoting equal opportunity and economic mobility.
Neither a vague, pro-business orientation nor tea party ideology speaks to these Americans — except perhaps to alienate them. Conservatives will need to define a role for government that addresses human needs in effective, market-oriented ways. Americans fear public debt, they resent intrusive bureaucracies, but they do not hate government.
Conservatives also face challenges on issues of national identity. The right will always stand for nationalism and patriotism. But during the Republican primaries, those commitments were expressed as the exclusion of outsiders — in self-deportation and the building of walls. The tone was nasty and small. Apart from moral objections, this approach is no longer politically sustainable. Romney won the largest percentage of white voters of any Republican since 1988. He carried both independents and seniors. Yet it wasn’t nearly enough. Republicans won’t win future elections with 27 percent support from Latinos — Romney’s dismal achievement. And Republicans won’t increase that support if they favor self-deportation.
The alternative is a vision of American identity preserved by the assimilating power of American ideals. And this would lead Republicans to endorse the DREAM Act and support a rigorous path to citizenship for undocumented workers already in the country.
Republican adjustments to cultural trends, particularly among Millennials, will be difficult — though candidates could start by being unambiguous in their condemnations of rape. In fact, the tone taken by most Republicans on cultural issues has shifted considerably over the last several years. The pro-life movement has become more realistic and incremental. Republican opposition to gay marriage is increasingly falling back to the defense of institutional religious freedom. With nearly 50 percent of Romney’s support coming from religious conservatives, there is no rational strategy that employs them as a political foil. But it is more advisable than ever to make public arguments about morality in aspirational rather than judgmental ways.
The Romney campaign was a vast machine with one moving part — its economic critique. The next Republican campaign will need to be capable of complex adjustments of ideology, policy and rhetoric. And it will need one more thing: a candidate with a genuine, creative passion for inclusion.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.