Fiscal conservatism. Strong national defense. Family values.
Those are the principles that made the Republicans a majority governing party. And not sticking with them was a big reason behind the large-scale defeat Republicans suffered on Election Day.
That was the conclusion of governors and leading conservative thinkers Wednesday attending the 2008 Republican Governors Association conference in Miami.
Those attending the conference, including Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other rising stars, were subjected to a bleak view of prospects for conservatives during the next several years.
Democrats have captured significant majorities among youths, Hispanics, blacks, Catholics, and other key demographics as the United States heads toward becoming a minority white nation. They are more trusted on issues dealing with healthcare, finance, education, and the environment, according to several panelists analyzing the 2008 election results. They have lost the chief means of modern communication — the Internet — and are losing voters in nearly every region of the country.
"We cannot be a majority governing party if we essentially cannot compete in the Northeast," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “We are losing our ability to compete in the Great Lakes states. We cannot compete on the West Coast. We are increasingly in danger of competing in the mid-Atlantic states and losing in the South.
Pawlenty and others frequently cited Ronald Reagan, but stressed that the party has become mired in its Reaganite past.
"We can be both conservative and we can be modern at the same time,'' Pawlenty said. "Ronald Reagan was a long time ago. A lot has happened since then."
As an example of failing to find that modernity, he cited what he and others described as the party's tepid sloganeering during the campaign.
"'Drill Baby Drill' by itself is not an energy policy," Pawlenty said.
Palin, who conducted a flurry of network interviews at the hotel where the conference was taking place, shied away from attending any of the plenary sessions. Hundreds of reporters attended, seeking to get a glimpse and a few quotes from her.
None of those who spoke at the various sessions found problems in the core Republican message of small government and fiscal responsibility. The problem, they said, was a failure to execute on and stick with those core principles.
Voters no longer trust the Republicans to manage wisely and spend frugally, some observers agreed. As examples they cited the Wall Street bailout, the lingering war in Iraq, and the disastrous management of emergency relief during Hurricane Katrina.
"Voters are looking for solutions and bold actions. They're looking for intensity. They need to see passion," said Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster and one of the thinkers behind the Contract with America during the 1990s.
"Americans are still a center right country. But they no longer see the Republicans as center. They only see them as right."
Jindal said Republicans will continue to lose if they merely try to obstruct every proposal Democrats make on key issues like health care. But they should not waver from bedrock principles of low taxes and family values.
"We cannot win debates. We cannot fulfill our role by being cheaper versions of the Democratic Party," Jindal said.
"I think by embracing our conservative principles and by applying them to problems American voters care about, we can regain our majority status," Jindal said.
There was wide disagreement over the candidacy of Arizona Sen. John McCain. Many pointed out that his margin of defeat was historically small during one of the worst economic periods in American history. But others said McCain failed to win over the Republican base and run a competent campaign.
"The basic message is that you cannot mess up that much and expect to get elected," said Byron York, a columnist for National Review, who spoke during a session examining what went wrong in 2008.
McCain never motivated the core socially conservative Republicans who could have tipped the scales in states such as Florida, Virginia, and Ohio. The war in Iraq also alienated many independent voters.
"Don't dump on the base and don't start a war by mistake — that’s one of the key messages of this campaign."
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