Reagan started his political life trying to win over the other party’s voters alongside mobilizing his own party’s base.  In this forum, Henry Olsen talks about the difference between “reaching out” and “inclusion.” Olsen says:

I think reaching out says we’re starting from a position of our own ideas and we’re going to bring them to you. What we need to do is talk about inclusion., and the first step of inclusion is listening. And listening to your aspirations, your values, and frankly what you don’t like about us. And then figuring out where we have common ground.

Reagan spent years of his pre-electoral career talking conservative politics to FDR-loving, unionized, Democrat-voting GE employees. He couldn’t do that job well if he didn’t listen. He had to learn how his audience saw themselves and the world around them. He had to know the arguments of the other side because his audience had already heard those arguments. The result of this training was that Reagan knew the arguments of his political rivals better than center-left politicians themselves.

Look at the 1980 debate with Carter. Everybody remembers “there you go again”, but check out this exchange between Reagan and Carter on inflation. Carter says of the Kemp-Roth tax cut proposal:

Governor Reagan’s proposal, the Reagan-Kemp-Roth proposal, is one of the most highly inflationary ideas that ever has been presented to the American public.

Reagan responds:
I would like to ask the President why is it inflationary to let the people keep more of their money and spend it the way that they like, and it isn’t inflationary to let him take that money and spend it the way he wants?

It is a shot to the head because Reagan understands the arguments behind both his own and Carter’s view of inflation. Carter seems to have internalized one point of view at most.

So what would Republicans have learned if they listened more? Here is one thing I’ve picked up on. Republicans didn’t like talking about policy alternatives to Obamacare. Doing so would have confused and perhaps divided their own political coalition which had a strong status quo bias. But younger and nonwhite voters were not socialized to respond negatively to rhetoric about socialized medicine and such. That doesn’t mean they were for it, but at least Obama was out there trying to do something. The Republicans were just standing in the way. To make gains among these voters, Republicans needed to make detailed (but pithy) arguments about what was wrong with Obamacare and the benefits of Republican health care policy X (read National Affairs to get an idea of some of the things they could have said), and do so in plain language.

That means Republicans would have to actually make arguments. Lots of Republican politicians aren’t used to this. During the Republican presidential primaries all that most of the candidates could do was deliver cheap anti-Obamacare applause lines. When Romney defended the basic structure of Obamacare Romneycare he usually won. Romney’s political opponents weren’t trying to convince anyone. They were trying to use clichés to mobilize the Reagan coalition. They were trying to spend down the political capital accumulated by Reagan. They didn’t even know their own minds.

The low point (maybe - there are several to choose from) was in one forum where Robert P. George asked Michelle Bachmann if she thought the Constitution forbade a state-level health insurance purchase mandate like the one in Romneycare. She said yes, but when pressed about where the Constitution forbids such a mandate,  Bachmann was stumped.   The most she could say was “Well, I’m sure you [Robert P. George] could enlighten me as to the provision [in the Constitution.]” She was used to getting cheers from the likeminded when she told them that their policy preferences (whatever they might be) were exactly what the Founders wanted.  Watching her squander Reagan’s political legacy almost makes me wish for an estate tax.

The conservative politician who can listen to members of the other political coalition like Reagan did, and who can learn to respond to the arguments of the other side (as opposed to just posturing for the amusement of their own side), won’t just win over those who currently think of themselves as swing-voters. They will win over people who consider themselves proud Obama Democrats.

Articles by Pete Spiliakos

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