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

Jeb Golinkin Commentator
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“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?”

Somewhere along the way, we conservatives stopped innovating and stopped explaining, preferring instead to fall back to “small government is better.” Well, maybe it is and maybe it is not. But the notion that government is always useless simply does not ring true in a world where people look to the government to provide Medicare, a national defense, FEMA relief, and public education. This being the case, we would do well to start probing for specific policy solutions that affect people in concrete ways. What is the government doing that is hurting small businesses today? What is the government not doing that it could be that could help small businesses? What about student debt? Can we use student loan forgiveness as a way to incentivize bright young people to enter particular fields? We need more primary care physicians if we are going to make this healthcare fiasco work. No one wants to be a primary care physician because primary care physicians get paid less than specialists, which makes it harder for them to pay off their medical school debts. But could we change the way the government reimburses primary care? And couldn’t we partially forgive student loans if borrowers agree to enter into primary care in particular markets for a certain number of years? What about tax policy: why are we not on the cutting edge of hyper-targeted tax cuts that we can show, with numbers, turbocharge the economy? Why are we not demanding that the government rebuild our cratering infrastructure rather than using taxpayer dollars to invest in projects it hopes will succeed (Solyndra)? Why are we not pushing pay for performance in the healthcare system AND in our education system? Workfare? Some of these ideas are useless, some of them might have legs, but the point is: specifics, specifics, specifics.

What I describe above, coupled with much-needed moderation in tone and substance on social issues (which I have written about elsewhere), all reaches back to the question we started with and which John Cornyn recently highlighted for his colleagues:

“I had a pollster years ago who said if they could only ask one question in a poll, it would be, ‘Does John Cornyn care about people like you?’ If people say ‘no,’ then you don’t have a chance. If they say ‘yes,’ then you got a shot.”

Time to get back to work building a conservatism that can win again.

Jeb Golinkin is a 3L at the University of Texas School of Law. He served as Senior Editor and Reporter for FrumForum.com from 2008-2011 and is a periodic contributor to David Frum’s blog at the Daily Beast. Follow Jeb on Twitter @jgolinkin.