Some Republicans take Ronald Reagan's nickname, "the Great Communicator," a bit too seriously. Following two straight losses in presidential elections, many in the GOP feel a need for a great communicator now, or at least in time for the 2014 congressional elections or the 2016 presidential race. As Ford O'Connell explains, the party needs someone who can communicate sound, winning ideas in a way that doesn't alienate or offend possible voters. You can see the problem once you realize that O'Connell believes that the party already has the winning ideas, or at least the necessary, compelling idea of this generation: fiscal responsibility. Mitt Romney didn't exactly oppose that idea, but O'Connell faults him, and not just retroactively, for too often resorting to "hard" rhetoric that "may play well in the primaries, but ... becomes a problem when less-involved voters begin to tune in." O'Connell can claim some battle scars, having been lambasted by Rush Limbaugh at least once last year. The difference between the two is instructive. O'Connell claims to agree with Limbaugh most of the time, but implicitly lumps the radio talker with Romney as people more interested in denouncing those they believe to be wrong or wicked than in trying to win them over to Republican ideas. When that attitude prevails, O'Connell warns that Republicans risk turning off those voters who want a President to "care about people like me."
To cut to the chase, O'Connell wants Republicans to figure out how to make their winning argument for fiscal responsibility in a way that leaves uneasy voters convinced that the GOP cares about them. O'Connell himself demonstrates the challenge Republicans face. He believes that all they need to do to convince people that they care is " Change the tone to a debate over conservative proposals to address our fiscal problems." Isn't that what Republicans are already doing? It may seem that way, but O'Connell argues that the GOP needs to "regain the rhetorical high ground" without getting "reckless." We can infer that this means Republicans should skip the "makers and takers" rhetoric that's increasingly assumed to be their default position. In simplest terms, O'Connell wants to preach fiscal responsibility without chastising anybody, as Republicans are too often tempted to do. That sounds reasonable, but here comes the hard part. At some point, presumably, Republicans will need to convince large numbers of Americans that they should have to make do with less. That is, they'll have to explain why those people should have to do with less. O'Connell may believe that all he needs to say is, "We can't afford it." I'm not so sure some people will be that easily convinced. "Why can't we afford that, but we can afford this?" they'll say, pointing at any number of extravagances. Things could get trickier if O'Connell wants Republicans to challenge the idea of "entitlement," which to an extent they must if they're to persuade people to make do with less. Can you tell people that their sense of entitlement, however modest it might seem, is mistaken -- can you tell them that your idea of a decent standard of living isn't quite as decent as theirs -- without seeming not to care as much for those people as they might think you should? It's not a bad idea for Republicans to attempt to prove that they care for ordinary Americans, but doing so will only beg the question of what they mean by caring? O'Connell may hope that a new Reagan will emerge to answer the question, but there's always a chance that he'll get someone more like Reagan's successor, whose blatantly hollow statement, "Message: I care," proved him the opposite of a great communicator. For the sake of argument, the idea that a leader cares for his people isn't irreconcilable with asking or making them make do with less -- some leftists of an ecological bent would try the same thing given a chance, but Republicans start with a handicap on this point. They argue now that the modern welfare state is unsustainable, but for too long they argued simply that it was undesirable, and they can hardly be surprised if people listen to them say, "we can't" but hear "we don't want to" or "we don't care." Until O'Connell or other Republicans figure out how to answer these objections, his expectations are far too optimistic.