Republicans talk too much about business owners and entrepreneurs, but that is more a symptom than a disease. The Republicans’ real problem is not one of talking, but of listening.
Take Mitt Romney: Whenever he was in an environment where he felt safe, Romney would always go back to the complaints, resentments and struggles he had heard about from business owners. Romney had developed an instinctive sense of this group’s priorities. He had taken the time to learn how this group thought. Romney seemed to make no such effort to understand the priorities of people who were at or just under the earnings median. Romney’s real problem wasn’t what he was saying. The problem was who he was listening toor rather who he wasn’t listening to.
Ronald Reagan is called a great communicator (and rightly so), but “great communicator” often seems reduced to “great talker”. That is a reason why Reagan was so misunderestimated by his contemporary liberal opponents. It is also why his present-day conservative admirers can’t seem to replicate Reagan’s appeal to the persuadable voters of our time. Mario Cuomo was a great talker. Ted Cruz is a great talker. But neither is in Reagan’s league as a communicator.
Reagan had developed a lifelong habit of listening to the people he hoped to persuade. As described in Reagan, In His Own Hand, before he figured out how to win over an audience, Reagan tried to get a sense of the priorities and worldviews of the constituency he was trying to win over.
That was why Mario Cuomo could not counter Reagan’s appeal. It wasn’t just a talking contest. Reagan had listened to what the “Reagan Democrats” had been thinking. Cuomo could have listened, too, but that would have meant being exposed to a lot of opinions about taxes, crime, and welfare that Cuomo did not want to hear. The result was a 1984 Democratic National Convention speech that seemed to have been delivered from another world. Liberal journalists wanted to live on that world, but most people didn’t. It was pretty good talking, but it was not good communicating. (By the same token, Ted Cruz is a great talker, but Cruz actually got a slightly smaller share of the popular vote in Texas than the no-so-great talking Mitt Romney.)
It is fine that Republicans like Eric Cantor wants to talk more about the middle-class, but talking should be heavily supplemented with listening to what persuadable voters already believe and what their priorities are. There are a few resources to help get Republicans started. There is Henry Olsen on the priorities of non-evangelical working-class whites. The College Republicans produced a nuanced report on the opinions, priorities, and media consumption habits of young voters. Trying to find a better speaker (or a better speech) to win over voters who are at or just under the median is starting at the wrong end of the problem. It starts with listening and finding the common ground.