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Editorial: Diagnosing a Debacle; GOP’s Analysis Misses the Mark

Mitt Romney is apparently resolved to leave public life on his own terms — clueless. Last week, in a conference call with donors, he blamed his election loss to President Obama in part on “very generous” gifts that the administration had bestowed on key constituencies such as blacks, Latinos, women and the young. In this he reprised his celebrated condemnation of 47 percent of Americans as government-dependent deadbeats who view themselves as victims.

That Romney regards things like immigration-, student-loan and health-care reform as “gifts” targeted to win votes is an extraordinary and repugnant view of the political process, and Romney’s fellow Republicans were quick to repudiate it. But it seems to us that many rising party leaders are displaying illusions of their own as they try to come to grips with their electoral debacle.

For instance, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, while distancing himself from Romney’s views, said, “We need to modernize our party. We don’t need to moderate our party.” And Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin added that, “It’s not that our beliefs are wrong. We’re not doing an effective enough job articulating those beliefs.”

This underestimates the magnitude of the problem Republicans face, at both the state and national level. The party’s philosophy is burdened by internal contradictions that work against presenting the coherent message that Walker desires.

One is that the party’s traditional preference for small government now extends only to economic matters. Many Republicans are only too happy to have government intervene in private life to enforce cultural norms that are no longer widely shared, particularly in matters of sexual intimacy. Moreover, the GOP’s small-government ethos ends when it comes to military and homeland security, where the party remains committed to lavish spending in the name of pursuing a muscular foreign policy. A more traditional conservative outlook would be suspicious of foreign interventions, wary of the establishment of a vast, secret homeland security apparatus, and more comfortable with a live-and-let-live approach to personal life. In this, voters might discern a unified vision of government’s role.

Those twin pillars of conservative thought — competition and choice — also need shoring up. Many Americans no longer regard competition as the sole, or even the main, means by which the economy and society advance themselves. Women, in particular, often see a different way forward in more collaborative endeavors at work, at school and in the community. Moreover, competition can be a meaningful template for society only when the playing field is truly level. Republicans would be on firmer ground if they more readily supported investments in health and education, particularly for those minority populations whose ability to compete is hampered almost from birth by their economic circumstances.

Anyone who listened to what Republican statewide candidates in Vermont and New Hampshire had to say about health care reform this fall will recognize that their faith in the power of consumer choice to shape the system for the better is undiminished. This fails to take into consideration that what one desires when sick is not multiple choices of providers and shopping for the best price, but rather the security and predictability of being treated by a health care provider whom one knows and trusts. More broadly, consumer choice as many Americans experience it in the age of deregulation consists of sorting through one set of perplexing and opaque options after another that somehow always end up costing far more than they should and delivering far less than promised. Choice has its place, but it is a limited tool in building the good life, and Republicans need to think about whether their unlimited faith in it is well placed.