This weekend, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were both interviewed about the Republican Party’s failure in the 2012 election cycle. Romney sat down with Chris Wallace, the host of Fox News Sunday, while Gingrich was interviewed by Steve Kornacki of Salon.com. The reflections of the failed candidates are epitomized by the media outlets they chose; Romney preached to the choir on Fox and trotted out Republican shibboleths to explain away his defeat, while Gingrich was interviewed on a liberal-leaning website and offered a realistic and reasonable diagnosis of the Republican Party’s problems and how to begin moving the party back towards national competitiveness.
Mitt Romney’s successful career in private equity suggests that he is a man who can think critically about an enterprise’s problems and how to bring a failing company back to viability. His interview with Chris Wallace shows that none of that acumen extends to politics. Romney’s explanation for his defeat was simple; he blamed Obama’s superior ground game and implicitly criticized the electorate for being selfish, saying "the president had the power of incumbency. Obamacare was very attractive, particularly to those without health insurance." While it is undisputed that Obama had a better ground game, blaming voter turnout for Romney’s lopsided 332 to 203 Electoral College defeat is like a baseball team blaming bad relief pitching for a 6 to 1 loss.
Romney’s distain for people voting to protect Obamacare exemplifies why he lost the election. With Americans struggling to pay ever-rising health care premiums, he shouldn’t be surprised that they voted for the candidate who offered a solution to that problem. Romney offered only paeans to "free market solutions," and next to a legislative program like the Affordable Care Act, vague slogans are an awfully thin gruel for voters to swallow. This was a pattern Romney repeated on what should have been his ticket to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — the ailing economy. Rather than offer any specific strategies or programs to reduce unemployment, Romney relied on harsh attacks against Obama, vague promises, and counted on voter dissatisfaction to do the rest. This didn’t work, yet Romney refuses to acknowledge any role it played in his defeat.
Gingrich’s interview was far different. In his very first answer, Gingrich pointed out three inconvenient truths about the GOP’s 2012 failure: embracing economic determinism as an election strategy, believing without any evidence that no President could be reelected with unemployment above 8%; losing the policy argument over Obamacare and the role of government; and falling victim to epistemic closure about Election Day realities, refusing to believe the dozens of polls predicting large pro-Obama turnout and instead believing a handful of outlier polls which produced more favorable results. In later answers, Gingrich castigated Republicans for thinking that a majority in the House of Representatives was anything like electoral success and urged a focus on actively engaging with minority communities in order to lay the groundwork for winning over traditionally Democratic demographic groups.
Ultimately, Gingrich’s message was one of policy modernization. He understands what few major Republican political figures have been willing to say since 2012, that Republicans need to tweak the product, not just change marketing strategy. At first glance, Gingrich seems an unlikely standard bearer for this message. In the Republican primary, he was vociferously critical of Romney’s so-called moderation, constantly reminding voters that Mitt Romney’s healthcare reform in Massachusetts was the model for Obamacare. Often, Gingrich indulges in the kind of bizarre conspiracy theorizing that frightens moderate voters away from the Republican Party. He defended Michelle Bachmann’s baseless scaremongering about State Department employee Huema Abdin’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and infamously told National Review, “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together his actions?”
Yet despite these failings, Gingrich’s political tactics in the early 1990s would be ones for Republicans to emulate now. In 1994, he led the Republican Party to victory in the midterm elections and ended 40 years of Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives. The political conditions in 1994, though different from our current state of affairs, do have major parallels to the current political situation. The Republicans were reeling from Clinton’s defeat of George Bush, just as it is now recovering from Romney’s loss. Currently, pundits ask whether Democrats enjoy a permanent majority on the basis of demographics; in 1994, pundits were wondering if Clinton’s moderate political stances would create a new Democratic majority by uniting blue-collar Reagan Democrats with upscale voters fleeing the Republican Party over its newfound hardline stances on abortion and other social issues — stances epitomized by Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge to George Bush and his strident culture war speech at the RNC. Against that backdrop, Gingrich nationalized the Republicans’ fall campaign and focused the election on a ten-point policy plan he developed with Dick Armey and pollster Frank Luntz. This plan, called the "Contract with America," avoided mentioning abortion, school prayer, or any of the other social issues that drive away suburban moderates. Instead, it focused on popular ideas like welfare reform and term limits. The Contract wasn’t perfect, and Gingrich would later overreach and destroy Republican hopes for 1996 with a disastrous government shutdown, but his election strategy of drawing clear distinctions with Clinton on issues where Republicans could be on the side of public opinion was an incredible success.
This is the strategy Republicans should pursue in the coming months — make tactical concessions on issues where Obama enjoys immense public support while offering realistic and popular policy alternatives on issues where Obama’s ideas are out of step with public opinion. The most recent polling from Pew Research Center shows that only 33% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, and 62% think it is out of touch. This has emerged because of the problems Gingrich noted in his interview, and it can be only be changed by a concentrated effort to modernize the Republican Party and its policy offerings. Unless the next Republican candidate succeeds in generating the modernization Gingrich speaks of, he or she will end up on Fox News Sunday making excuses for why they lost.