Another Painful Lesson For The GOP

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Election '08: This year's presidential contest was not, as some predicted, a historic blowout handing unfettered power to the Democrats. A credible Reaganite, in fact, could have even beaten Barack Obama.

One of the most telling numbers in the IBD/TIPP Poll during the final days of the campaign was the survey's unique measure of intensity among supporters of Barack Obama vs. those of John McCain. Obama backers expressed enthusiasm and confidence that registered in the high 70s, finally finishing at well over 80% on the eve of his election. McCain devotees, by comparison, rarely topped 70% in this gauge of voter passion.

In other words, a whole lot of committed Republicans didn't think McCain - with his late conversion on the Bush tax cuts, his opposition to new drilling in Alaska, and his soft stances on immigration and global warming - would make the ideal GOP president.

Did this "fervor gap" prevent the possible defeat of Obama? It's impossible to know definitively, but it's clear that an un-GOP-sounding McCain echoed Obama and congressional Democrats in blaming "greed" on Wall Street as the cause of the financial crisis instead of strongly defending private markets over government control.

What is also clear is that, once again, the GOP's Reagan coalition was split apart in the primaries - with Mitt Romney getting votes from free market enthusiasts and Mike Huckabee energizing religious conservatives. As a result, a "maverick" who four years ago mulled the idea of switching parties got the nomination by default, campaigning mostly on his compelling life story as hero and POW.

The Republican Party was thus re-taught a stinging lesson in 2008: Its success, as in the past, does not come from narratives that capture the people's imagination, but from ideas that work - economic freedom, caution on government solutions, principled assertiveness in foreign policy and defense of traditional values.

Bob Dole, the 1996 nominee, also suffered the wounds of war. He also chose a running mate that electrified the GOP base. But he too had a credibility problem. As selflessly as Dole served his country in war, few believed that someone who voted for so many tax increases in his career had finally seen the light on Reaganomics, even though he put the author of the Reagan tax cuts, Jack Kemp, on the ticket with him. Bill Clinton had little trouble beating him.

McCain may have named as running mate one of the most exciting up-and-comers in his party in Gov. Sarah Palin, electrifying economic and social conservatives alike. But his campaign kept her on a leash and harshly complained about her anonymously in the press. And it is undeniable that a big reason he chose a conservative heroine to run with him was that his own Reaganite credentials were in serious question.

In the coming weeks and months, President-elect Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders will be claiming that we have just witnessed a far-reaching realignment of the political landscape. In fact, as reporter Robert Novak noted, Obama "may have opened the door to enactment of the long-deferred liberal agenda, but he neither received a broad mandate from the public nor the needed large congressional majorities."

As a new generation of GOP leaders resist Washington's impending dalliance with socialism and plan for 2010 and 2012, the party must also remind itself that it had a good chance to win the White House in 2008. But it blew it by choosing story over substance.

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