There are two theories among Republicans on how to expand their party’s appeal.
One is to nibble around the edges of an agenda that may catch the fancy of minority voters.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is not selling the GOP’s main message to minority and college audiences. He condemns the National Security Agency surveillance program, criticizes voter identification laws and advocates drug leniency.
The appeal is premised on the notion that his stance on major issues — a vastly shrunken federal government, a flat tax and deregulation — will not prevent voters traditionally absent from the GOP fold from voting for an “R.” The focus is less on substance than on symbolism.
The other outreach strategy is to sell the essence of conservatism to voters but tie that philosophy to the economy, education, health care, energy and other bread-and-butter issues that a wider array of voters care about.
This is the tactic that Republican governors have taken and that potential 2016 candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., advocate. It is premised on the idea that conservatism, if properly explained and seen as delivering results, can be an attractive philosophy for a wider array of voters. It avoids blanket statements about ideology.
The tactics of symbolism have some initial benefits, as we’ve seen from Paul’s travels, not the least of which is that it plays to liberal crowds and ingratiates its proponent with the mainstream media, which often insist voter ID and drug laws are racist and a traditional strong-on-defense foreign policy is “pro-war.”
Telling the crowd what it wants to hear works so long as it is sufficient to overcome antipathy toward central policy issues. It works best, to be frank, when there is no opponent present to remind the crowd of the rest of the hard-right or libertarian agenda.
It is highly questionable whether an anti-government message ultimately has appeal to large numbers of African Americans, Hispanics and urban professionals.
The “sell conservatism” tactic eschews stark anti-government rhetoric, taking a populist and reform-oriented message to those who think the GOP is the party of rich people and big business. It largely ignores secondary issues (e.g. voter ID) and makes the case that properly implemented conservatism is better for more people and is more effective at creating opportunity than the liberal welfare state. It features policies such school choice, individualized health care, breaking up big banks, a more family-friendly tax code and a pro-jobs energy policy.
It focuses on the liberal agenda’s poor results and assumes voters’ most important issues (e.g. the economy, education, health care) will ultimately determine their votes.