New Conservative Groups Focus on Messaging, but What Message?

Politico has a fascinating, informative piece about "Bush's Brain," Karl Rove, and former RNC chair Ed Gillespie, who are putting together a series of activist organizations to rival the galvanizing effect that they believe the Democracy Alliance has had on Democrats. But although the piece thoroughly describes the groups' fundraising and political strategies, it does not explain—and this is not a criticism of the piece, which simply was not about this—what the actual policy goals are.

The Democracy Alliance was created in 2005 by Rob Stein to counter not specific Republican electoral victories, but the whole country's rightward drift. Conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation were churning out radical proposals like Social Security privatization and pushing them into the mainstream. Aggressive conservative commentators were dominating talk radio and the emerging blogosphere.

The Democracy Alliance emerged to counter that influence on the cultural and political debate: to develop and disseminate liberal ideas and criticisms of conservative ones. That's why its recipients list is filled with wonky publications and institutions such as the Democracy journal and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) think tank. Look at the conservative organizations by comparison:

American Crossroads "will focus on voter contact with the potential to move into ground-game and turnout efforts," and is run by RNC veterans.

American Action Network "will conduct polling in key races, and plans to put up TV advertising" run by GOP House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.

American Action Forum is "a policy institute linked to the American Action Network."

Resurgent Republic "offers itself as a message-testing laboratory to help GOP lawmakers develop policies."

The Republican State Leadership Committee "focuses on down-ballot races for statewide and legislative offices," and is run by Gillespie.

So that's five groups, of which only one is dedicated to generating or disseminating ideas. The rest are focused on developing or implementing strategies for winning elections. What they actually sound like is not the Democracy Alliance, but America Coming Together, the unsuccessful grassroots fundraising and voter mobilization effort that liberals concocted to skirt the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance restrictions and assist the Democrats. (Instead, it mostly reduplicated the DNC's efforts, since it wasn't legally allowed to coordinate activities.)

Is the Democracy Alliance directly responsible for the Democrats' wins in 2006 in 2008? That's impossible to measure, but it's unlikely. Democracy and the CBPP aren't reaching most swing voters. What they are doing is changing the landscape where, in 2004, Republicans were unified behind President Bush's agenda, and Democrats were divided, especially over foreign policy, between the Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman wings. In 2008 the opposite was true: Republicans ran the gamut from Rep. Ron Paul's idiosyncratic gold bug/libertarian/isolationism,  to John McCain's and Rudy Giuliani's dour, ultrahawkish foreign-policy focus and de-emphasis on social issues, to Mike Huckabee's big-government, Christianist conservatism, to Mitt Romney's bland businessman's establishment Republicanism.  Since Barack Obama's election, the right has been unified in opposition to his agenda, and enough fundraising and clever messaging might be enough to put it over the top in this year's midterms. Politics is cyclical, and the Democrats are due for a fall, especially in this economy.  But the Republicans' problem right now isn't that they can't win elections. Considering the disastrous hand John McCain was dealt—a deeply unpopular incumbent, an unpopular war he vociferously supported, a sagging economy, a charismatic opponent, a ballooning federal deficit, a running mate who didn't know why there are two Koreas—it is remarkable that the race was a dead heat until the financial crises hit.  The Republicans' problem, rather, is that they cannot govern. The Bush years demonstrated what happens when you cut taxes while increasing spending. Lo and behold: deficits mount. If Republicans were to assume control of the federal government, they would have to adjust, or ruin the economy. But as their tepid response to Rep. Paul Ryan's deficit-reduction plan demonstrates, they have no real appetite for embracing conservative ideas that would risk unpopularity for the sake of responsible (if undoubtedly right-wing) governance.

During the presidential campaign, the leading Democratic candidates churned out detailed policy plans, on everything from climate change to making college affordable, before the first primary vote had been cast. Obama had teams of experts advising him on every major issue. McCain, by contrast, seemed to have the same policy adviser for every domestic subject (Doug Holtz-Eakin) and an incoherent answer to how he would reduce the deficit. (He said he would cut earmark spending, even though that is nowhere near the size of the deficit, nor did he want to cut foreign-aid earmarks). He also lacked an actual proposal for even his signature concern, national service, until very late in the campaign. This is not a model for running a country.  The think tanks and magazines funded by the Democracy Alliance have helped the Democrats build up a shared set of policy ideas—cap-and-trade, cutting student-loan subsidies—that they are now attempting to implement. When it's the Republicans' turn, as it will be again sooner or later, they too will need a set of ideas with which to actually govern. Alas, their supposed answer to the Democracy Alliance looks unlikely to help them figure out just what those ideas should be.

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