It’s a curious answer. If people come out for something they opposed four years earlier, doesn’t that something have some oomph? Cotton is a compelling politician with a Harvard/Marine Corps résumé, but he won 59 percent of the vote in a district that gave Mitt Romney 62 percent. How do you win back the Obama voter? He doesn’t know, and you wouldn’t expect him to know. On Saturday, Rep. Paul Ryan tells conservatives that they’ll have to find leverage where they can, because “the president will bait us. He’ll portray us as cruel and unyielding.”
Ryan would know—his campaign was supposed to educate voters, in real time, about what Republicans believed. “I looked at the GOP ticket,” says conservative columnist Amity Shlaes at a Saturday panel, “and I asked: Why don't we flip it? Honestly?”* (Her new book is a fine biography of Calvin Coolidge, blurbed by Paul Ryan.) But Democrats demonized Ryan, and conservatives didn’t allow themselves to understand it. Former congressman and current 15-hours-a-week MSNBC host Joe Scarborough admits that he thought Romney was beating Obama, because Romney was drawing massive crowds. “Mark Halperin called me and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it!’”
If you stayed in the media feedback loop, you thought the polls were skewed and that the Benghazi or Muslim Brotherhood stories were metastasizing into scandals and that middle-class voters were rallying around Ryan. You were fooled. “We do very well with people who are steeped in the Constitution,” says former Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat turned Republican who has quickly started using “we” to describe conservatives. “We’re better at talking to each other than we are at talking to people who aren’t like us.”
To stop that happening again, conservatives need better messaging. Nearly everybody at the summit agrees. “One of the best slogans that came out of this campaign was, ‘You built that!’ ” says Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “I wish we could take a different tack. That was a slogan that was aimed at the 53 percent. It was aimed at business owners. It was aimed at people who already got there. I think their message should have been: You can build that.” It wasn’t that Romney’s “47 percent” tape was even so bad, says Cruz. It was that it fit into a “narrative” that Republicans are cold-blooded and the poor can never achieve anything without handouts.
Fixing a “narrative” sounds deceptively easy, and fair. Democrats didn’t respond to their narrow 2004 loss by nominating an Erskine Bowles-Joe Lieberman ticket. They found a once-in-a-generation political talent, a liberal, black community organizer seen by most voters (until mid-2009) as thoughtfully moderate. No matter what he does, a preponderance of voters let him skate away. No, conservatives need to talk smarter about what they already believe.
On Sunday, I listen to CNBC host Larry Kudlow politely interrogate Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks’ top contribution to the movement, so far, was his 2010 book The Battle. In it, he posits that a “30 percent coalition” of takers, who are essentially anti-capitalist, have snowed the rest of us. They look at the welfare state like a hungry virus looks at a healthy cell. Paul Ryan borrowed this idea, word for word, during the 2012 campaign, but Brooks sees much more sweat and toil to come on the “narrative” beat. He tells a joke about a priest, a psychologist, and a free market economist, whose golf game is delayed by two players up ahead, blind men who lost their sight saving children from a burning building. The first two men react like humans. “The free market economist,” says Brooks,” says: ‘You know, it would be more economically efficient if they played at night.’ ”
After the Q&A, I make a coffee run. On the way back, I see Kudlow and Brooks chatting politely with some of the conservatives who’d seen the panel, biding time as the TV host gets his shoes shined.
“I only wish that Romney had talked to you after the 47 percent comment,” says one of the NRI summit attendees. “You could have coached him on how to turn it around.”
Brooks doesn’t really disagree. “He’s of the old business school of never having to say you’re sorry.”
Correction, Jan. 28, 2013: This article originally misspelled the last name of conservative columnist Amity Shlaes. (Return to the corrected sentence.)