The GOP’s problem is its focus on the size of government

“Which candidate do you think is more in touch with voters like yourself?” Barack Obama 53%, Mitt Romney 43%.

Want to rebuild the Republican Party? If so, the above question is the only thing you should care about for the foreseeable future. In the aftermath of a less-than-stellar showing in the Electoral College, it is tempting to simply write off the loss as a Mitt Romney problem rather than a conservative movement problem. Take Governor Romney’s obvious discomfort telling his own story, add in idiotic remarks about his knowing NASCAR owners, throw in the “47%” gaffe, and top it all off with the Obama team’s vicious campaign of attack ads and you have a recipe for how POTUS managed to make a nice Mormon man seem positively frightening to the uninformed voter. But these cosmetic problems need not have been fatal. Unfortunately, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back in this cycle was Romney’s instinctive reliance on the most well-worn of GOP talking points — the panacea of small government.

Now, you might reasonably ask why this is a bad thing. After all, President Obama did spend seemingly endless amounts of cash on all sorts of programs we could not afford. Indeed, since the loss, Romney has gone so far as to say that these spending programs, which he not so eloquently termed “gifts,” explains why he lost the election. In a certain sense, Romney is right, but not for the reason he thinks. In a debate over the size of government, people ask themselves how, if at all, the government is improving their individual lives. While President Obama spent like a drunken sailor, he was able to cite specific ways in which his policies affected individual Americans. Rather than propose a different vision for government and explain specifically how his policies would empower individual citizens to live tangibly better and more prosperous lives, Romney did what most Republicans have become conditioned to do: he cited the abstract belief that smaller government is superior and moved on. Particularly given that he was asking the American public to throw out the devil they know for the one they do not, this was an error.

Republicans need to make elections about the role of government, not the size of government. The time has come for the party to seize the initiative and make the political fight about specific, rather than abstract, ways that our vision for America can make all Americans better off.

But how might we do this? David Brooks provided some useful ideas earlier this month:

“If I were given a few minutes with the Republican billionaires, I’d say: spend less money on marketing and more on product development. Spend less on ‘super PACs’ and more on research. Find people who can shift the debate away from the abstract frameworks — like Big Government vs. Small Government. Find people who can go out with notebooks and study specific, grounded everyday problems: what exactly does it take these days to rise? What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?”