How the GOP Can Win Back the Values Debate—and How Dems Could Lose It

The secret to what ails both parties, and our politics, is a return to the 2000s, the days of compassionate conservatism and culture-war compromises.
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Then-Governor George W. Bush made "compassionate conservatism" the mantra of his 2000 White House run. (Reuters)

One thing is always true in American politics: One party is in trouble, and the other is heading toward it. A big loss always forces a party toward despair and then attempts at renewal, while winning leads to complacency and overconfidence. I saw these dynamics play out while leading faith outreach for President Obama's reelection campaign and serving in the White House. During that time, I met hundreds of thousands of voters, and I learned how sincerely torn many of them are between our two political parties.

Despite cries from Beltway pundits that the American electorate is deeply and irreconcilably divided, the partisanship we see in Washington is a poor reflection of the character and values of the American people. This was clear to me on the campaign trail. I spoke with moderate Catholics who loved their Church, and disagreed with the Obama Administration's approach to the HHS contraception policy, but were motivated by their Catholic concern for the common good to support health reform. I met with Latino Christians who were uncomfortable with gay marriage, but also had trouble supporting a candidate who failed to see the conflict between family values and an immigration policy of self-deportation. I held events with young evangelicals who disagreed deeply with the president's stance on abortion rights, but could not reconcile spending their summer volunteering to serve the Third World poor with a vote for a candidate who suggests starting the foreign-aid budget at zero.

For these people, neither party is working. Their loyalty to party will only go as far as their values take them. So both parties have a choice to make.

The Republican Party is in danger of losing relevance in national elections, and becoming a party defined by its limitations: the cities it is unable reach and the voters it cannot attract. In a recent Pew survey, a strong majority (63 percent) of Americans believed the GOP has "strong principles," but a majority also viewed them as "too extreme," "out of touch with American people," not "open to change," and not looking out for America's future. It is one thing for the American people to trust the Democratic Party and President Obama more than Republicans on issues like the economy, climate change, immigration reform, and gun safety. But what should really trouble Republican loyalists is that on the deeper questions of values and character, Democrats now have the upper hand.

I have worked hard over the last six years to elect President Obama twice, and to work for his success while he is in office. But I also believe that American politics works best when both parties offer voters of various backgrounds and priorities a real, positive choice. For the last four years, the Republican Party has failed to do that. But Republicans should take comfort that the answers exist where they are most comfortable looking: the past. No, not to the 18th century and the Tea Party, but a mere decade ago with the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush.

As Bush said often during his 2000 presidential campaign, compassionate conservatism is an approach that was "first and foremost springing from the heart." After the clear success of the Clinton Administration in improving people's lives, conservative rhetoric about government seemed cold and dogmatic: Even if you don't believe government should be the first tool of choice, why wouldn't you at least take it out of the toolbox? So Bush promised to use government to fight poverty at home and abroad through support for civic society, and improve education, particularly for minority children who were languishing in underfunded and poorly staffed school districts.

After the past four years of toying with what E.J. Dionne rightly calls a "radical individualism," Republicans' best hope is a return to a politics that leads with values. Compassionate conservatism does just that: Rhetorically, it values people over an idolatry of ideology that is disconnected from Americans' lives. Is it any wonder people question whether Republicans are looking out for them when the GOP responds to a president's passionate call to save children's lives through gun safety with twisted appeals to the Second Amendment, and suggestions that we give elementary-school teachers automatic rifles? Or refer to the free market and federalism as their reasons for opposing health reform that promises to improve Americans' quality of life and access to care? My Republican friends should know that the American people are profoundly less interested in Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman than their own futures and those of their children.

Conservatives don't need to change their core principles to win a national election again, but they must filter their principles through a concrete concern for people's lives. Look no further than another Bush, Jeb, for a preview of the upcoming battle in the GOP. At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, Jeb delivered a speech every political operative on either side of the aisle should read. He told the conservative gathering:

Here's reality: if you're fortunate enough to count yourself among the privileged, the rest of the nation is drowning. In our country today, if you're born poor, if your parents didn't go to college, if you don't know your father, if English isn't spoken at home, then the odds are stacked against you. You are more likely to stay poor today than at any other time since World War II.

Unfortunately, the great tragedy of the past decade is that liberals have channeled the anger and frustration that comes from this oppressive dynamic and used it as an opportunity to attack the very idea of success itself. In their view, anyone who has climbed to the top 1 percent, top 10 percent, or top 20 percent has committed some form of gross social breach, and they deserve our scorn.

The voters Republicans need have no desire for compassion without understanding. A compassionate conservatism that hides a disdain for the downtrodden will not work.

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Michael Wear is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He previously led faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 election campaign and worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

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