Remember how it was Republicans’ obsessive focus on social issues that was going to doom the party? Between 2008 and well into the aftermath of the party’s 2012 defeat, the culprit behind the party’s problems was said again and again to be social issues.
All that opposition to abortion, gay marriage and illegal immigration spelled doom, doom, doom for the minority party. If only Republicans would focus on fiscal issues, the economy, problems with ObamaCare and be more libertarian in their approach, the horrible demographic slide dooming the GOP with young voters and minority groups might be reversed.
Well, that’s almost exactly what Republicans are doing now, and guess what? That also means doom, doom, doom!
On paper, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, should be exactly what the most potent purveyors of conventional wisdom were saying Republicans needed to do after the party’s galling 2012 loss. He is Hispanic, and the son of an immigrant. He is an Ivy Leaguer with a love of policy minutiae. He is rarely heard discussing social issues and is instead forever talking about federal spending and ObamaCare. He embraces the non-interventionist foreign policy approach popular with young voters and previously with Obama Democrats. He is only 42 years old and fights the old guard and money men in his party.
Perfect, right? The same New York Times that wrote dozens of articles warning of the danger of social issues in the GOP during and after the 2012 cycle must think the nuevo libertarianism of the GOP is a sign of progress. Well, no. Not really.
Cruz is too pushy. Too uncompromising. Too obsessed with ObamaCare. Too, well, conservative.
The answer is that whatever conservatives do, non-conservatives will say they’re doing it wrong. The cycle runs thusly: An establishment press outlet finds a Republican talking about what the establishment says is wrong (e.g. Rick Santorum’s marathon stretch of MSNBC appearances during the dwindling days of the 2012 GOP primaries) and then brings on a moderate Republican to deplore what was just said. “Why are Republicans talking so much about _____?” asks the anchor. Well, maybe to get on your network.
Whatever conservatives do, they will find Republicans or former Republicans who will say that it is a disaster. Sometimes they suss out single-issue Republican gainsayers, but other times turn to the all purpose Cassandras of conservatism. There is always a David Frum or a Colin Powell or a John Weaver available to say that whatever the Republicans are talking about is wrong. Not that Republicans listen to them anymore, but it does keeps the Town Cars rolling up Wisconsin Ave. to MSNBC and wins lots of approving nods at the Aspen Institute or wherever Bill Clinton is toasting Warren Buffet with a glass of crisp Gewürztraminer this week
That’s not to say that those folks aren’t sincere. If one believes, as President Obama does, that the country very much needs a permanent, loyal opposition that will haggle with liberals over the management of a European-style system, then the prescription for a Huntsmanian Republican Party would be not just be practical, but also patriotic. That, however, is an ideological chasm that can’t be boiled down to talking points. Liberal Republicans disagree wholly with the substance of conservatism, so they are not very reliable arbiters of how conservatives should talk about their movement. Vegans make poor steakhouse chefs.
Of course neither does it mean that they are always wrong, which would be an equally disastrous conclusion for Republicans to reach. Tone matters, very much. In politics, tone matters much more than policy. By hewing close to focus-group-approved lines and using cool, non-confrontational language, Obama managed to get elected despite a number of start policy disagreements with voters. He did not change what he believed. He changed how he talked about what he believed, and did so in a way to invite confidence and calm voters.
That is the lesson for conservatives, not the belief that somehow the right policy mix will deliver the approval of those who think that what Republicans really ought to be are Democrats.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. His Power Play column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays at FoxNews.com. Catch Chris live online weekdays at 11:30 am ET. Read his “Fox News First” newsletter published each weekday morning. Sign up here.