Duck, duck, ...

Some pundits are critiquing the seemingly nolens volens spending of the RNC. And other baseball stat wizards turned poll-stars have made much the same point about the last gambit of the wild bunch and Sarah, Plain and Freelancing in advance of 2012. But this goose is cooked, and the far more interesting question is where the Republican party goes from here.

(I’ve actually come around on Sarah Palin. At first, I was skeptical. Then I was aggrieved. And now, thanks to the magic of my supporting Hillary for a year, I’m sympathetic to Sarah again. Knock it off, gang. They’re just clothes. Men get to wear suits. Women have to wear outfits. Let’s criticize her for the content of her character, not the cut of her clothing.)

Ross points to Rush Limbaugh’s screed to note that a response which conflates Colin Powell and Rod Dreher is not the best way to honestly interrogate the first principles of the Republican party and the directions in which it might move as it reacts to what appears to be a realigning election. But good luck: it took Democrats decades to respond to the Republican dominance that began with Nixon’s capture of the Silent Majority (discounting Carter as an outlier who barely beat Ford), and on the way to Clinton the Democrats did not retrench to the center. Instead they nominated candidates who ran on higher taxes and furloughs for criminals.

That’s not quite fair: but what Democrats didn’t do during the ’80s, as Ross and Reihan have persuasively argued, is to assuage working-class Americans’ concerns about their daily life. On crime, public order, national defense, and taxation – the solution that Democrats offered was too often a version of Phil Graham’s nation of whiners critique, dismissing some concerns about public order as racist, dismissing some concerns about Communism as fear-mongering, dismissing some concerns about taxation as voodoo, and dismissing some concerns about the corrupting influence of unreformed welfare as cruel Scrooge-esque capitalism. By campaigning against a rhetoric of uplift and change that they too often only saw as divisive, and working to prop up a theory of government no longer believed in by the coalition that had birthed it, Democrats were easy to pillory as the party of a sclerotic Washington, out of touch with America, more eager to defend minority prerogative on the Hill than to argue for an encompassing vision of the City we strove to build there.

After all, what is amazing isn’t Bill Clinton’s Sistah Souljah moment, but the fact that it was national news for a Democrat to reject such radical piffle. Candidates running for national office as Democrats, fairly or unfairly, had identified themselves as a minority party, lost in the narrative of America, not sure of how to speak about the City on the Hill, even as Americans were desperate to live there, to vote for a candidate who could conjure it for them.

Bill Clinton’s greatest strength wasn’t his ability to triangulate, or pass policy in the Gingrich Congress, or even his preternatural intelligence and empathy; it was his ability to tell a better story about the promise of America. He felt our pain, but even more he made us feel his deep and abiding love for this country.

His wife, arguably a stronger advocate for families, for women, for choice, for health care, and for national security, didn’t connect in this campaign until she reminded herself and her supporters what she was fighting for, and her finest moment was her bringing her supporters to Obama by reminding them that when we vote for a President, we vote for her supporters’ vision even more than we vote for her.

McCain will lose this election because of the economy, and McCain may not get as close as he might have because of a campaign that has been uneven. But Republicans will lose many elections if they believe that the McCain loss is due to his moderation. McCain will lose this election first and foremost because he never was able to articulate how his vision of America addresses Americans’ concerns.

McCain was never able to articulate much of a vision of America at all, a shame because his vision of the good America so clearly consumes him. His life experience may have made him his “country’s man,” but his dedication to service for his country often seems to trip him up when he speaks about what his country should become, as if asking it for more would be a shameful bequest on an old friend. We do serve our country, but our country also serves us.

To quote from Reagan’s farewell address:

“We the people” tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. “We the people” are the driver, the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the people” tell the government what it is allowed to do. […]

Just as Nixon, and Reagan, and Clinton have heard Americans concerns – about crime, about taxation, about the economy – and responded by asking Americans to share with them a vision of the America that could be, Republicans must now ask themselves: what do the people of this country want? How can the party of Lincoln and Reagan once again speak to their concerns?

Threatening voters with Bill Ayers and socialism is no more of an electoral strategy than calling Reagan divisive or Clinton a liberal or Bush an idiot. Yes, Obama is untested, and yes, he has unsavory associations, but pointing that out repeatedly doesn’t distract a voter for one second who’s worried about the plant closing down, or sending his kid to college, or paying for his wife’s medicine, or arguing with the insurance company about treatment for his father, or trying to meet payroll at his business. Assailing the patriotism of your opponent does not convince swing voters that your patriotism is deeper than a flag pin. You can throw mud at an eagle, but it’s still going to look better than your pig with wings.

I’ll close with this bit from Reagan’s farewell address, which is as much of a warning to Republicans now as it was to all of us then:

Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past eight years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.

Rush wants to reincarnate the Republican party in the mold of Reagan, which is a noble goal. He should remind himself of who Reagan was, and how he never forget that he represented the people: they drive the car.