Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
As the G.O.P. tries to figure out why it lost so much ground in 2006 and 2008, Republicans have pretty much narrowed it down to three possibilities (within which there are a nearly infinite number of variations). The trouble with these three explanations is that they're a tad contradictory:
1) The Republicans lost because they were too conservative.
2) The Republicans lost because they weren't conservative enough.
3) The Republicans lost because President Bush did a lousy job. Ideology had nothing to do with it.
Obviously, when folks have diametrically opposed ideas of what went wrong, it's not easy to come to a consensus as to what the Republican Party should do now. That said, I think there's a theme that could unite the competing elements of the G.O.P.
It sounds soporific, I know, but, before you doze off, consider that I didn't think of this idea on my own. In recent months, a couple of Republican governors told me, without using the exact term, that managerial competence needs to be a key part of conservatism.
Here's Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana: "We are believers in limited government, but that imposes a responsibility to make certain, within its proper limits, government is as effective as it can possibly be."
Here's Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina: "I'm an unabashed conservative and sometimes accused of being a libertarian to which I say, 'I'm guilty, I love liberty.' If that is your philosophical starting point then certainly you care about limited government, but with the government that you do have, you believe that it should be as efficient and effective as possible because it will preclude the need for more resources."
Governors, of course, are supposed to say they care about good management. But I really think this concept should appeal to Republicans of all ideological stripes.
If you think the Republican Party is too conservative, then what is more moderate and, in fact, non-partisan than running government well? As the saying goes, there's no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole.
I you think the Republican Party has not been conservative enough, there's a very good chance your number one complaint is profligate government spending. As Governor Sanford points out, if government is efficient then there's less pressure to spend.
And, if you think the problem was President Bush, it's worth asking what exactly led to Bush's troubles. Didn't the problems involve too much cronyism and too little of a focus on the nuts and bolts of running a government?
Even if Republicans agree on this theme, though, the hard part (other than actually being competent) is to turn it into a winning political message. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention this year that focused heavily on managerial competence. Everyone hated it.
Still, I think there are ways to drive home this point that can appeal to voters. Making an overt argument that small government and good government go together, as Sanford and Daniels do, is a good start. This Daniels campaign ad is a great example of a management message that worked.
But the best thing about running on management is that it's not always dependant on political messaging. Sooner or later, voters tend to know competence -- or incompetence -- when they see it.
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