In an era of almost frightening campaign microtargeting, is part of the GOP's problem actually its excessive targeting of individuals?
Long pursued as an advantage - more information about an individual should be better - I wonder if there isn't a breaking point when it comes to dissecting the electorate into its sub-camps - a point where disjointed surgical cruise-missile-down-the-chimney appeals to "Disabled Catholic NASCAR Union Hunters for Bush" become counterproductive.
In some respects, it's far easier for a party to "activate" individuals voters when they can be promised something related to their issues of choice. And national politics will always be about aggregating interests to some extent.
Still, I think the GOP, as it seeks to get its vision back, needs to step back for perspective, let the otherwise incoherent Monet blotches come into focus. It needs to reach a more universal "reasonable man," if you will, with a less targeted appeal. And it must do so deftly without appearing to stand for nothing.
The party needs to craft a platform based not on a jumbled pile of interest planks to appeal to various key constituencies, but a broad platform relevant to a wide, general constituency. And then actually stand for it in practice. It needs to trend toward an emphasis on the least common denominators at its core - like fiscal responsibility, smaller government, a commitment to federalism, an embrace of technology. And then make hard decisions and policy choices in line with those emphases. It needs to reduce its focus on social issues - refining its appeals in that arena to a few overarching commonsense stances. It also needs to shift its social issues footing. It needs to morph from a desire to stop societal dissolution of traditional values by enacting social values into law...to a different tack of pushing to preserve individuals' and families' rights to live life according to their traditional values amidst a more pluralistic setting.
The party needs to move beyond Bush and Rovian to-the-brink tactics by crafting and pushing toward a post-War on Terror foreign policy that addresses China, Russia, and non-state actors in a coherent manner with a proper sense of triage based on real American interests and a realistic assessment of actual threats. It needs to engage in policy discussions in areas of education, healthcare, environment, science, and transportation - even if it ultimately presents a compelling restatement of time-tested adages. It must engage, though.
Generally, it needs to seem reasonable and common sense. It needs to attempt to adapt - not necessarily win or thrive in the short term - in the urban environment. It needs to be smart and welcome intellectual vigor and discourse back into itself. To be healthy, it needs to be skeptical and historically informed about not only its opposition, but also itself. The party pitch, as shared by its many voices, needs to be more organic and less canned.
Most importantly, even if the GOP adapts by adopting positions along the lines I've laid out, its foremost hurdle, in my mind, is dealing with what too many will construe as a repudiation and discrediting of free market capitalism in the wake of the financial crisis. That underlying economic system should remain one of the common denominators at the center of any broad appeal moving forward.
I find it ironic that I feel the need to make a call for a less individualized approach by the GOP as it courts voters. A greater focus on individuals is desirable. But in the end, by paying attention to some broad, durable common denominators, the party does center itself on a framework more hospitable to individual liberty. I think an example from Wisconsin history, as illuminated in Professor Booth Fowler's book "Wisconsin Votes" is instructive. Writing about a push for temperance in the mid 19th Century:
While the quarreling over alcohol did not last long as a central concern in the 1850s, memories of its dangers as an issue lingered in political strategists' minds. Thus, knowing how divisive it could be, the newly formed Republican Party of the middle and later 1850s steered carefully away from the matter; besides, the party had its own explosive issue in its opposition to the expansion of slavery. The logic was simple: Why needlessly antagonize the growing numbers of immigrants and their songs, especially those from Germany, on a matter that was hardly first in minds of the emerging Republican leadership?
Thus, the nascent Republican Party in Wisconsin wisely avoided a needless - and unworkable - push to enact social mores into law, focusing instead on an overriding common denominator issue that, while not as individually tailored to voters, nevertheless entailed extending individual liberty.
The distributive model of government is the final consideration. In making a pitch to an individual, it is easier to activate a voter by not only microtargeting, but also by then attaching a promise of funding to that issue. Bush and Rove adopted far too many pages of the Democratic playbook in this regard - see faith-based initiatives, No Child Left Behind, etc. For the GOP to be an alternative, it must avoid such ploys to the extent possible - but doing so will make the task of party rejuvenation more arduous.
I look around at my generation, I live in it, and I sense the GOP's slip from relevance in the past eight years. It has become little more than the butt of Stewart or Colbert's latest joke to far too high a percentage of my peers. It needs to make itself a realistic option again for the people who will make and break elections from this point forward.