There is an old saying that battle plans are effective until the fighting starts. That is true in politics. Once the campaign actually begins anything can – and usually does – happen. This explains why establishment favorite Jeb Bush is being over-run by Donald Trump and a socialist senator from a small state is giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money.
At this stage of the presidential race in 2008 conventional wisdom held that the General Election match-up would be a contest between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Guliani. Four years ago, Herman Cain held a commanding lead in the polls to take on incumbent Barack Obama. Clinton, Guliani and Cain all failed to win their party’s nomination.
Trump and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders would appear at first glance to have absolutely nothing in common. Trump is the embodiment of free enterprise having made billions in real estate and other ventures; Sanders is an avowed socialist. But there is a common thread: each has tapped into the deep tide of discontent with the malaise that has engulfed both our domestic economy and foreign policy. To be sure Trump and Sanders prescribe diametrically opposite solutions, but the feelings of discontent run strong on both the Left and the Right.
The challenge for Republicans, and especially for conservatives, is to present a path forward that will be both realistic, yet appeal to the nation’s desire – as Trump puts it – to make America great again. The only certainty is that the old approach has failed. Milquetoast nominees like Mitt Romney and John McCain spouting establishment rhetoric inspired nobody and resulted in the ideologically driven presidency of Barack Obama.
Conservatives are viewed by many voters as heartless money grubbers willing only to cut spending and kick the “lesser of these” to the streets. But a new approach is emerging, with a presidential candidate and a think tank president leading the way. In their own way, they have laid the ideological groundwork for a message that more accurately reflects the conservative heart.
The Conservative Heart is a new book by Arthur C. Brooks who is President of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. The stated purpose of the book is to challenge “the liberal monopoly on fairness and compassion.” And Brooks does just that by explaining how free enterprise and conservative solutions have lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system known to man.
Rick Santorum, the former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and 2012 GOP Presidential runner-up is known primarily for his outspoken positions on social issues. But, it is on economic issues where Santorum actually may have the most impact. He too has written a book, Blue Collar Conservatives, in which he argues that conservatives must talk about the “blue-jeaned” worker as well as the CEO. Santorum argues: “Conservatives give the impression they are unconcerned about the millions of hurting and vulnerable Americans” and concludes “Our country needs opportunities for all not just the financiers on the East Coast or the high-tech tycoons on the West.”
All of this, according to Brooks means we must change the focus from the Left on equalizing the “finish line” to placing emphasis on “making the starting line more equal for the vulnerable by improving education, expanding the opportunity to work, and increasing access to entrepreneurship.” And for him, that includes fighting “cronyism that favors powerful interests and keeps the little guy down.”
Powerful interests, of course, abound in both political parties. But they are small in number compared to the “blue collar conservatives” to which both Santorum and Brooks argue the GOP must appeal. It would be a bold new approach and a departure from the past. But having lost the last two presidential elections, for conservatives and for Republicans a departure from the past would be a good thing.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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