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The Republican Primary: Are we better off now than we were four years ago?

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Jeremy Schwarz writes:

If there is one hard and fast rule about this year's primary, it's this: there are no hard and fast rules. In fact, as the 2012 Republican primary progresses, it increasingly resembles the 2008 Democrat primary. There have been more frontrunners in this race than in the last Kentucky Derby. But it's insightful about how our politics have evolved. In both form and function, political primaries have transformed themselves from fairly predictable five month battles into nearly two year campaigns. In spite of attempts by states to move up their primaries, Republicans (like their Democratic counterparts in 2008) are witnessing a far more protracted and less predictable campaign.

Game Change: More Davids than Goliaths

How did this happen? What does this mean? The short answer is that technology--new media and micro-campaigning--has flattened the cost and given the means for small insurgent political campaigns to tap into grassroots support while at the same time raising the profile of their respective candidates at a relatively low cost. The fact that personality overshadows policy adds to this. Cases in point: Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul (somewhat) all exemplify small insurgent campaigns that have challenged the political orthodoxy of big conventional campaign organizations. Four years ago, none of them would have been given the level of media attention, and fundraising opportunities, that they now receive. Ron Paul has been able to use technology and policy via personality not just to build a presidential campaign, but to build a larger, more consequential movement. In historical terms, one could argue that John McCain's 2008 campaign resurrection began when he ditched his conventional model and ran as a maverick insurgent. This could be said of Newt Gingrich as well. Conversely, this has made it more difficult for a larger, well-funded, and well-organized campaign such as Mitt Romney's to establish political dominance earlier within the primary by deterring those with more modest financial bases, low name-recognition, and limited political networks. Romney's struggle to establish himself as the presidential nominee is a function of this, not a function of Romney per se. The logistics of a long campaign dictate that Romney will be the likely nominee. Still, in order to compete with an insurgent campaign, Romney must adapt the spirit of one. No excuses, no hesitation, no fear.

Simple answers, not easy ones

This campaign has also been unique not in what has been said but what has not been said. Just as protests are not policies, applause lines are not alternatives. Campaigns are as much about ideas as they are about images or even personalities. There has been a hesitance to address the core issues that underpin much of our challenges After four years of 10% real unemployment and empty rhetoric, Americans want--and deserve--simple answers, not just easy answers.

The debate over the Keystone Energy program offered Republican candidates a perfect opportunity to articulate an alternative vision to the current administration. This alternative vision could include ideas such as: revamping our highly inefficient national energy grid; concluding the Keystone energy deal with Canada; embracing the type safe nuclear power like that of the US Navy; using a package of tax credits for automakers and gas companies to accelerate their transition to hybrid cars; and finally a national energy plan that relies on American innovation, not the Saudi royal family.

Fiscal responsibility is another area where Republicans--and their presidential candidate--can repair the damage of the previous Republican administration and restore the Republican brand on fiscal responsibility. While Americans have been outraged by the fiscal recklessness of Washington over the past eight years, the discussion over fiscal responsibility has fallen victim to the same reflexive rhetoric. Every candidate promises a balanced budget--even Barack Obama--but few have seriously addressed the core fiscal imbalances. For Republicans to win back their economic credibility, we cannot just attack the "tax and spend" policies of Democrats but the "borrow and spend" policies of Democrats and Republicans. And I might add, "borrow and spend" incurs higher long-term costs in the form of interest payments, high interest rates, and the inevitable stagflation that follows it.

More importantly, Republican candidates need to make the middle class the centrepiece of their economic recovery package. Over the past thirty years, the wages for middle class families have declined along with the opportunities for affordable higher education, home ownership, and healthcare. The middle class, not the rich nor the poor, are the real engine of new growth, new industries, and new jobs. Building an economic policy around them is a key pillar of long-term sustainable growth. Barack Obama's campaign will make the argument: who can best lead us into recovery? Republican must offer a glowing alternative rooted in the middle class experience of growing wealth, not just spreading it. This also extends ideas around reforming our healthcare market and primary education.

Republicans must also address the underlying moral issue that has hampered economic growth: confidence. Financial models aside, confidence in our economy is rooted in a level of trust, which in turn is rooted in shared values. Our economic crisis is partly derived from a failure of some to live up to those shared values. Free markets cannot function properly without commonly held moral values, just look at Russia. Republicans must address the clear immorality of banks foreclosing on the same taxpayers who funded their bailouts. And all of us must address it by strengthening the institutions of the free market, not attacking them.

Mr(s) Conservative, Mr(s) Republican, and Mr(s) President

The winning Republican nominee cannot solely define himself as Mr Conservative or even Mr Republican, but as Mr President. The Republican Party is philosophically based around the freedom of the individual to exercise his or her talents and liberties in service to him/herself, his/her family, and his/her country. Opportunity comes with responsibility, and freedom comes with fairness. Republicans can win the argument and the election by remembering that the heart of their party is the middle class: the people who pay their taxes; raise families; start businesses, support our charities and churches; and send their sons and daughters off to war. Their hopes must be our hopes and their fight, our fight. They make America work and they need a leader who will get them working again.


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