How conservatives lose — and win

Wall Street Journal editorialist Mary Kissel has been visiting Australia as a guest of the Institute of Public Affairs, on whose behalf she attempted to broaden the philosophical horizons of Canberra’s press corps (see the video below). She expanded on her observations on March 6 in Melbourne, sharing a visitor’s informed analysis of the factors that saw Australian voters reject John Howard and his record in favour of the Kevin Rudd’s slickly packaged and entirely misleading "me too-ism".

Witty and assured, she inspired Quadrant Online contributor Tony Thomas to take down her remarks. What follows is an abridged and lightly editted transcript.

Worth noting is Kissel’s exquisite timing. Even as she spoke, moves were afoot to end Ted Baillieu’s tenure as Victoria’s Premier. Had he governed in accord with her advice that a conservative politician’s first obligation is to represent conservative principles, things may well have been different for him.


Mary Kissel:

The IPA asked me to give you brief comments on how Australia can avoid becoming like America – I didn’t know whether to be complimented or offended!

My first advice that popped to mind was for the Liberals to stay away from guys named Mitt, and also stay away from guys named Malcolm.

I do think the Obama era is, like the Gillard era, an aberration in our modern politics. Both are very very far to the left of where our great countries tend to go, which is largely in a centrist direction, always seeming to be saved by suburban and rural voters [to] the irritation of the urban elites. You may be able to ignore everything I am saying tonight because your structure of politics and polity is something where you will always sway back to the centre, as the news polls suggest you are going to do very soon.

Let’s ask why did Americans vote for Barack Obama, and what lessons can Australian conservatives learn from that outcome?

It seems for many reasons, and I think the first is that they were complacent, just as Aussies were in the later Howard years. We had, until the financial crisis, a pretty good life in the US. We attacked the terrorists in their homeland, and they never attacked us again in our homeland, thanks to the Bush Administration. We got tax cuts, the housing market was going up up up, we took up new markets in Singapore and here with the Free Trade Agreement, Latin America. Life was pretty good, just as in the Howard times. Unfortunately, when things are good you tend to get used to them, as you saw in 2007.

I happened to be in the Wentworth Hotel Sydney when that Howard defeat occurred. I had never seen so many upset people, and incredibly drunk people, in my life. I think they knew they would lose, but they hadn’t realised how terrible the loss would be. For Howard to lose his own [seat] to the lady with the teeth, it was all a really difficult pill to swallow.

Unfortunately, the only way you can combat complacency is to renew the leadership and change it, have leaders promote those who are under them and then step aside – as my mother used to say, ‘leave while they are still sorry to see you go.’ Unfortunately Bush didn’t do this, Republicans picked (poor) candidates to run, as did the Howard administration, and I think you know what happened.

The second reason Americans voted for Obama is because Republicans never deconstructed or explained what he meant when he said things like, “The question we ask today is not whether government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs and decent health care they can afford and a retirement that is dignified.” My gosh! Who is going to object to that?

But this is very dangerous language because what it actually says is very radical language cloaked in conservative rhetoric. The only way to counter that kind of rhetoric  and language, is to force people to be specific, how often was Obama asked, ‘How are you going to get people health care they can afford? Can you put a dollar number on that for me?” Did you ever hear that asked in the first Presidential campaign?

Nor do Republicans counter another very important fiction, which is why we found ourselves in this financial crisis in the first place — the narrative that the big bad banks got together with the big bad rating agencies to force those poor, largely minority, easily hoodwinked Americans to buy McMansions they could not afford but they really should own. And the solution is to pass something called the Dodd Frank Act, an incredibly innovative law that eliminates all financial risk from the entire economy at all times!

Now you know that is nuts. I know it is nuts. Even a lot of Democrats know it is nuts, but when was the last time you heard a Republican stand up and say, ‘Actually it was Congress’s fault that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-backed agencies, decided to lend a lot of money to people who could not afford a mortgage.’ When did you hear them say, ‘Gosh, banks are a little over-regulated, so they all take the same risks at the same time, maybe that is a bad idea? Gee, people who work at ratings agencies are people who can’t get jobs at Goldman Sachs.’

When was the last time you heard that poor people, even if minorities, should not be burdened with mortgages they can’t afford, because that actually keeps them impoverished in the long run. Maybe they should rent. Wow, radical!

You have to combat this kind of rhetoric or else people will believe it.

The third reason for Obama’s election was because it was historic and that is really something you can’t underestimate. There is nothing you can do about it, except put up a far superior candidate who sticks to substance, not to superficialities — which brings me to Mitt.

Conservatives have a tendency to nominate the nice guy who is the wrong person, instead of the right person for the job. McCain was a war hero. They run on their biographies: McCain, war hero. Mitt, businessman. But you have to ask — maybe a stupid question — does any American voter need to be told we need a strong military or that our economy sucks?

No, we know that already, yet that is what Mitt ran on. Mitt also didn’t win because he could not connect conservative ideas to average life. Why are lower taxes good? Why is more regulation not necessarily better? How do you advocate small government and individual choice? Why is competition between the states good, as is a vibrant federalist system? Why do you think it is OK to have a private housing market that won’t throw people off [if they fail to service their mortgages]? Why is it OK to have private health care or, maybe, government just mandating it, like with car insurance, rather than providing it?

Mitt could not answer those questions because I don’t think he had thought very hard about them becausee he didn’t have a philosophical grounding. Couldn’t he have read for inspiration? Who taught him economics? Who was his mentor? Why was he running for President?

Lastly and most important, Mitt didn’t win because he couldn’t connect to important voter constituencies, like Hispanics and Asians and blacks. How are you supposed to win without connecting with those voters, especially voters who have not voted for your party in the past? Do you just ignore them? Why not go out and try to reach them?

Here’s some short lessons for conservatives:

  • Just because you do a good job you are not going to get re-elected. You must always compete for voters, whether times are good or bad.
  • No conservative can take for granted, just because the other guy stretches the truth, that voters will figure that out. You have to explain why your policies are better.
  • You can’t take for granted any voter — you have to speak to all of them, not just voters you feel comfortable with, and no conservative can take for granted the emotional side of politics.
  • It is not enough to be a stand-up guy. Mitt was not really one, you have to be a guy people want to listen to and have a beer with, and you just can’t teach that.

All of which is to say, if you take that advice, Tony Abbott will be the next Prime Minister.

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