Building a rainbow on the right

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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When I ran for Congress a number of years ago, I called my campaign the “Rainbow on the Right.” The name was a response to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, and reflected my belief that the Republican message — especially the power of free enterprise to lift people out of poverty, to provide opportunity and allow upward mobility — could eventually resonate in traditionally liberal communities if we made the case properly. I was as good a person as any to start a Rainbow on the Right: I’m a Jewish Samoan, married to an Indian, with an extended family that includes African Americans, Filipinos, Latinos, Tongans and, by religion, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Hindus and Muslims. And my campaign was indeed a rainbow coalition. It had more diversity than the campaign of the Democratic incumbent I was challenging, but his campaign had more money. You can guess who won.

I was a little ahead of my time. In the wake of President Obama’s victory, Republicans are fretting about “demographic trends” and the need to “reach out” to minorities. I’m glad the GOP power structure has come around to my way of thinking. We need to build a Rainbow on the Right.

The rainbow is not just about racial and ethnic diversity. I don’t use the “colors of the rainbow” analogy literally to just mean skin color, but also to represent the various hues of the political, social and socioeconomic spectra. I believe that Republicans can make at least some inroads in almost every segment of the population that supported President Obama, including young people.

The authority I bring to this subject derives not so much from my absurdly diverse family background as it does from something in my past: I used to be a liberal. I still remember how I used to think when I was a liberal. I still remember the things that some conservatives did that scared or repulsed me. And I still remember the arguments that eventually got through to me and allowed me consider conservatism with an open mind. I distill that knowledge in my book, Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies are the Best Way to Achieve Liberal Ideals. In the book, I illustrate how to advocate for conservative policies on a wide range of issues — entitlements, tax policy, education, health care, immigration, the environment, the War on Terror and others — using arguments that would have resonated with me when I was a liberal.

Here’s the secret that holds the key to making these arguments effectively: Conservatives tend to define themselves by what they’re for — limited government, free enterprise, strong defense, for example — and liberals tend to define themselves by who they’re for — the poor, the middle class, minorities, women, etc. When you realize that, it becomes easier to find common ground between what conservatives can provide and what liberals want. We simply have to demonstrate that what we’re for is the best way to help who they’re for.

So, for example, Left-Hearted, Right-Minded explains why free markets are the most effective way to fight poverty; why our unsustainable public spending will eventually make it impossible for the government to protect the most vulnerable in society; why raising taxes on the “rich” would primarily hurt those struggling to find work; why policies imposed by teachers unions rob poor children of their only shot at escaping poverty; why Obamacare will hurt all of us but the poor most of all; why environmental regulation, while furthering an extremely important goal, should always be evaluated in terms of its impact on people who desperately need jobs; why failing to secure the border results in the exploitation of those who toil in the shadows of our society. None of these arguments is original, but it’s a matter of emphasis. By consistently emphasizing how conservative policies will benefit the people liberals champion, we can make some headway in precincts that have not traditionally welcomed our message.

Emphasis is important, but tone is even more important. Anger can be a good motivator when you’re preaching to the converted, but it’s scary and alienating when you’re preaching to the not-yet-converted. Think of how we feel when we’re subjected to liberal rage. That’s the same way non-conservatives feel when they observe our rage. When we deliver our message with anger — even when it’s justified — people outside of our base find us scary. When people find us scary — or insulting or condescending for that matter — their defenses go up and they can’t be as receptive to our ideas as they otherwise might have been. The liberal establishment, including the media and popular culture, is already doing everything it can to convince America that conservatives are scary. We don’t have to help. We need more happy warriors like Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee. Our best ambassadors are people with sunny and attractive personalities who can nonetheless communicate conservative values with confidence and conviction.

Tone is especially important when discussing social issues. Many Republicans are starting to question whether the party should de-emphasize its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, positions which are major turn-offs to a growing majority of young people. Social conservatives should consider taking their battle to win hearts and minds on these issues outside of the political arena, except when government threatens religious freedom. But to the extent that social conservatives continue to exercise their right to advance their views through political action, they can help their case by adopting the right tone. They should approach those who disagree with them on social issues with respect and humility, not disdain and disgust. They’re not going to browbeat anyone into agreeing with them.

The process of party-building can proceed more quickly in some communities than in others. In the African-American community, those who stray from liberal orthodoxy are typically ostracized as race-traitors. That won’t change overnight. Fortunately, the Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander communities don’t tend to demonize their own for the “sin” of being Republican. (We were able to build a large and enthusiastic core of Romney supporters in the Pacific Islander community this year; our families still love us.) Ron Paul has proven that young people can be turned on to the idealism of capitalism. Young people, of course, have been more harmed than any other group by Obama’s policies, especially the Obama debt explosion. Of course, the problem with young people today is the problem with young people throughout history: they tend not to focus on the future, and hence are not as concerned as they should be about the crippling debt they will inherit from this president.

Building a Rainbow on the Right is a long-term project that will nonetheless yield important gains in the short and medium terms. The good news is that party-building will not require us to divert from our path. Unlike the Democrats, our version of party-building does not involve raiding the public treasury to ensure that each group of our supporters “gets theirs.” For us, party-building primarily involves reaffirming what we believe as conservatives — we just need to find new ways of communicating our beliefs to encourage others to adopt them. The effort we spend engaging with traditionally liberal communities does not pull us away from our base; it actually strengthens our ties to our base because it requires us to find new and more compelling ways to articulate our values. That helps us win over the independents and moderates listening in.

Jack Kemp, who inspired me to become a Republican, used to say that “people don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” Flor Gali, a local community leader who won me thousands of Filipino supporters when I ran for office, used to tell me that “politics is about addition, not subtraction.” As we happily embrace the challenge to spread our values across the rainbow, those are good things to keep in mind.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.