The victory of dark horse Joseph Cao over the incumbent William Jefferson in a Louisiana Congressional race is instructive. There’s much consternation these days among Republicans, or at least Republican pundits, about “the future of the GOP.” There should be less God. No, the social issues are the one thing that is working. Republicans should return to “core principles” (which are?) ; no, we need to reinvent Republican ideology. We should get better technology; no, that won’t solve the problem. Meanwhile, Cao — like Saxby Chambliss — won. In Cao’s case, it wasn’t easy. And the Democrats did in fact pull out all the stops to save the indicted Jefferson.
Republicanism wasn’t reinvented by Cao, and Chambliss didn’t suddenly revolutionize the GOP’s technology. So why did they win, and what does this tell us about the future of the GOP? For starters, Obama wasn’t on the ticket driving the other party’s turnout sky high. But it also suggests that far too much time is spent chattering in the abstract. Sometimes the punditry is down right unintelligible — even with charts. Races aren’t won in the abstract, they are won by specific candidates, with identifiable issues, in real places.
So Republicans should start from the premise that they need attractive, viable candidates in all races–even ones in which the opponent is heavily funded. Then it matters what type of candidates the Republicans field. It is not that Bobby Jindal or Tim Pawlenty, to take two examples, are saying anything so different from John McCain. But they are saying it better, with more clarity, more persuasively. They are younger, more compelling figures. And let’s be frank — to compete for votes in an increasingly diverse electorate, Republicans need more minorities, entrepreneurs, women, and younger people to run for office.
That doesn’t mean the message or ideas aren’t important. They are, very much so. But we shouldn’t confuse intellectual banter and intriguing political discussion for effective electoral politics. The latter requires compelling ideas plus compelling messengers. Let’s remember that, without Barack Obama, the Democrats would have been running purely on failed McGovernism.
Which brings us to a final point: it helps if the other side screws up. Would we have had Ronald Reagan without Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama without George W. Bush? It’s questionable. (And as compelling a figure as Cao is, he likely wouldn’t have won if he hadn’t been running against an indicted opponent whose claim to fame was stacks of bills in his freezer.) If you illustrate the other side’s errors and refrain from blurring the differences or providing political cover, that helps. But sometimes there is little the other side can do if the the incumbent performs well. Eight years of a successful Reagan presidency delivered four more years of GOP rule, even with a Republican candidate who did not have superb political talents.
So while the Republicans are searching for good ideas and rebuilding their reserve of alternative legislative proposals, they should be searching for more Joseph Cao-like figures–and hoping President Obama resembles Carter more than Reagan.