is president of American Principles in Action
is a senior fellow of American Principles Project
The Democrats' unfolding Obamacare disaster is in danger of temporarily distracting Republicans from their most important task. The Grand Old Party is in the middle of one of those periodic intellectual funks that will lead to renewal or to defeat.
The hubris of the Democrats in passing a fundamental health-care transformation without a single Republican vote, combined with President Obama's lethal combination of deliberate deception and utter incompetence in the Obamacare rollout, has breathed new life into the GOP for the 2014 elections.
But the conservative movement, as a movement, cannot depend on reaction to overreach by Democrats as an ongoing governing strategy, and the smart political leaders are recognizing that fact.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker went to Washington recently with a new book, Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge, and a message: Republicans have to shed their "party of no" image. Walker was recognizing something important, as we pointed out in our new report, "Building a Winning GOP Coalition: Lessons from 2012": The GOP's economic message is not connecting with voters' present suffering.
"In Washington the fight is over 'fiscal cliffs,' 'debt limits,' 'sequesters,' and 'shutdowns.' In the states, Republicans focus on improving education, caring for the poor, reforming government, lowering taxes, fixing entitlements, reducing dependency, improving health care, and creating jobs and opportunity for the unemployed," Walker said. Republicans need to "offer Americans positive solutions for the nation's challenges - to reduce dependency, and create hope, opportunity, and upward mobility for all citizens."
Here is Walker's most important insight: The Republicans' "party of no" image is not driven by social issues but by the perception that GOP leaders do not have an economic agenda that connects with middle-class voters' suffering. The most important political fact that emerged from the 2012 election is that, after four years of economic stagnation, only 34 percent of voters believed electing a Republican president would help the middle class.
Listen to how national GOP leaders talk about the deficit and spending, taxes and overregulation - it is almost always in the future tense: Bad things will happen to our children or grandchildren unless we fix this. Meanwhile, voters are enduring a crisis of not just unemployment, but wage stagnation and deteriorating value of their paychecks that neither party is seriously addressing.
But sadly, Walker fell into the trap set by the Democrats' "war on women" strategy of viewing the social issues not as a handmaiden to GOP victory but as a distraction.
Even as the courts are stepping in to strip voters of their rights to vote on marriage, and the left's ongoing demonization of marriage traditionalists is taking away people's livelihoods and threatening a culture of tolerance, Walker, when asked about gay marriage, pressed "mute." He told The Hill: "I don't talk about it at all. I don't talk about anything but fiscal and economic issues in the state."
Asked about his pro-life record, Walker distanced himself from it: "I signed hundreds of bills the last couple years. There's literally a handful that relate to that issue."
Walker is right that we need to look to successful GOP governors like himself for a road map to victory, but he is dead wrong to be downplaying his own and other governors' innovative leadership on the social issues. Walker has signed bills to cut state funding for Planned Parenthood, tighten oversight of abortion providers, and require doctors to perform ultrasounds before performing abortions (to ensure laws against late-term abortions are obeyed).
He is not alone. At the same time, the conventional wisdom in Washington among the GOP elites is that we need to jettison social issues. GOP governors and legislators have been signing an unprecedented number of pro-life bills: "At least 54 abortion providers across 27 states have shut down or ended their abortion services in the past three years, and several more clinics are only still open because judges have temporarily blocked legislation that would make it difficult for them to continue to operate," reported Huffington Post columnist Lauren Bassett in August.
"This kind of change is incredibly dramatic," said Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, ". . . so different from what happened in the past."
And yet Walker, John Kasich of Ohio, New Jersey's Chris Christie, and other governors have not lost popularity because they voted to defund Planned Parenthood.
"The last election, the reason social issues came up was because there was a void," Walker told The Hill, referring to Democrats' "war on women." "The lesson after last November . . . was we have to focus on the things we care about and lead on those, and those are fiscal and economic issues."
No, the reason social issues came up is that Democrats are pouring millions of dollars into mischaracterizing and demonizing the pro-life position as antiwoman to distract voters. The question is: How should conservative leaders respond?
Silence is an ineffective response to this Democratic attack, as Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli learned to his sorrow (and the GOP's).
The best defense is a good offense. Democrats are all-in in a well-financed campaign to redefine social conservatism as extremist and antiwoman. They are not paying the price for their increasingly aggressive proabortion mentality because GOP leaders like Walker are urging an absurd political strategy: Respond to well-funded attacks with silence.
Walker is right that the most important task facing the GOP is to connect voters' economic suffering with conservative reform policies. On the social issues, Walker is half right: Republicans who want to win should do what he does, not what he says.