Commentary Magazine


The Politics of Addition

Following the 2008 election, there was much GOP angst. Some supposedly smart pundits wanted to throw social conservatives overboard, while other supposedly smart pundits wanted to throw moderates overboard. Neither seemed like a winning strategy for a party losing market share. But it made for lots of feisty columns and got many of the pundits on cable talk shows and mainstream not-really-news magazine covers. Nothing like a good Republican fight to make TV cable news producers and magazine editors happy.

But in the world of candidates and races and real voters, there were two big gubernatorial races this year in which the candidates took a different approach. After winning a purple state by 20 points and carrying Democratic-leaning Fairfax County, Governor-elect Bob McDonnell was asked in an interview if he still “cares” about social issues and if they are “winning” issues for Republicans. He answered:

Absolutely! I am a social and economic conservative and have made no bones about it. I have an 18-year record as attorney general and as a legislator of not only supporting, but leading on a lot of those issues. So I am unequivocally pro-life, pro-property rights, pro-gun, but what I understood people were most concerned about and what I saw as the biggest challenges facing Virginia were quality of life and pocketbook issues: jobs, economic development, taxes and federal intrusion into the free enterprise system. So we decided about a year out this would be a campaign about jobs.

He also explains that he’s not big on a 10-point, or any point, “purity” test:

One of the reasons I was able to get 58.6 percent of the vote is that we tried to bring a lot of people into the party. We had a 2-1 advantage with independents and I try to do it by reaching out and embracing people, not having a covenant of limitations that excludes people. What I am concerned about are these acid tests where if you fail on one or two, somehow you are ostracized from the party. That leads to infighting, destruction and losses at the polls. For me, I stuck to my principles as a social and fiscal conservative, but focused almost entirely during the campaign on economic conservative issues. I didn’t alienate my socially conservative friends, but I’m not sure written acid tests will be helpful in building the party.

Hmm. No one thrown out? Run on a conservative message that appeals to independents and moderates? Talk about the top issues? This sounds like it might work. Well it did, at least in Virginia and at least at a time when Obama and his Left-leaning agenda have wigged out independent voters.

And there’s a lesson as well for Republicans who often take to whining about media bias. McDonnell weathered the Washington Post‘s onslaught over his 20-year-old thesis, and wryly observed: “It didn’t matter what the Post said about my views on life and marriage. … The Post, along with my opponent, created such a misplaced focus on my position on social issues that they ceded the entire playing field to me on economic issues, which is what people were voting on.” It seems that a smart and disciplined candidate, rather than wailing that the media is “150 percent in the tank” for his opponent, can use the media as a foil and get his message out anyway.

McDonnell’s formula might not work everywhere for Republicans in 2010 and beyond. But it’s hard to see what might work better. A lot of Republicans, therefore, will be listening to his advice as they map out their races.