The Missing GOP Agenda

Column: Voters want solutions, not just complaints

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R., Ark.), House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.)
February 10, 2023

Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not mince words in her response to the State of the Union address on Tuesday. The Arkansas governor, just weeks into her term, blamed President Biden for appeasing the radical Left. She gave a preview of what the GOP presidential nominee will say next year.

Sanders pointed out that while she is the youngest governor in the country, Biden is the oldest president in history. She noted that while she is the first woman elected governor of the Natural State, prominent Democrats have trouble saying what a woman is. She likened Biden's speech to a child's tall tale and lambasted the president for his bungled response to the crisis on the southern border, for his inattention to crime, and for his delay in shooting down the Chinese spy balloon. "President Biden is unwilling to defend our border, defend our skies, and defend our people," she said. "He is unfit to serve as commander in chief."

Conservatives praised Sanders's indictment of President Biden and her call for a new generation of GOP leaders. A few people said it was the best State of the Union response they'd ever heard. She cleverly framed today's politics as a competition between normal and crazy—with the Democrats acting cray-cray. "Every day," she said, left-wing culture warriors tell Americans that "we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is—your freedom of speech."

Such lines are catnip to the populist grassroots. But I'm not convinced that they will persuade the independent voters who decide elections. Governor Sanders's punchy and well-delivered remarks followed the Republican playbook from a disappointing midterm campaign. If the GOP wants to win in 2024, its candidates will have to confront, seriously and substantively, topics that Sanders avoided: abortion and the economy.

Sanders neither mentioned nor alluded to the most significant Supreme Court ruling in decades. Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ended the constitutional right to abortion in a remarkable victory for both the conservative legal movement and the pro-life cause. This prominent pro-life woman did not bring it up.

To be fair, Biden hardly touched on abortion in his own speech, devoting a measly five sentences to the issue. He did, however, say what he was for—writing an abortion guarantee into federal law—and what he was against—restrictions. His advocacy won't be as muted on the trail.

Sanders may have avoided the right to life because the pro-life movement, not to mention the Republican Party, has not settled on a post-Dobbs strategy. Many members of the GOP consultant class are pro-choice and believe that the Dobbs backlash was responsible for the party's losses. Every candidate has been left to fend for himself, either by stating plainly and holding to his pro-life convictions, or by curling into a ball and pretending voters won't notice.

Well, voters do. And they are as likely to reject a candidate who is mealy-mouthed or defensive as they are to oppose a candidate whom they perceive as extreme. Hiding behind the 10th Amendment, and saying abortion is best left to the states, is an evasion, if for no other reason than abortion activists follow a national plan of action that merits resistance. Whether they like it or not, Republicans must parry Democratic attacks, make the case for pro-life measures, and face the consequences.

The most energetic and boisterous elements of the Republican coalition have organized themselves against far-left "woke" ideas on race, gender, and American exceptionalism that, since 2020, have gained strength within the country's educational, cultural, legal, medical, corporate, and media institutions. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that anti-wokeness serves the same unifying function for today's conservatives that anti-Communism did for their 20th-century forebears.

The comparison is instructive. Students of history will recall that, while the American people are instinctively anti-Communist, voters nonetheless rejected conservative anti-Communism for decades because they found it too aggressive and too conspiratorial. Republicans must be careful lest their anti-woke messaging trigger the same response.

Focus, execution, and competence are what's important. When Republicans champion parental rights in education, or challenge and constrain politically correct institutions, they tend to succeed and be rewarded. When they veer into details unfamiliar, strange, and off-putting to most Americans, or when they act like a character in a post-apocalyptic television drama, voters run in the other direction.

Some anti-Communists became monomaniacs, and for understandable reasons. When a threat is that large, that consuming, it tends to crowd out everything else. Anti-wokeness encourages similar behavior. Once your eyes are open to woke subversion, it is hard to close them. The problem with monomania, however, is that it distorts reality and prevents you from seeing the world in its full complexity. It hobbles your capacity to recognize and to meet different challenges from the one you can't stop noticing.

Americans tell pollsters that the economy is their number-one priority. They give President Biden low marks on the economy because the inflation that his policies helped to unleash has eroded their standard of living. They prefer the Republicans. Yet, last year, independents who said the economy is poor and disapproved of Biden voted for Democrats. That's why Kevin McCarthy's House majority is small, and why Chuck Schumer remains Senate majority leader. If Republicans are not careful, nothing will change in 2024.

Governor Sanders barely discussed the economy. She said the words "inflation" and "high gas prices" and "jobs" once each. "Woke" she uttered twice. Rather than outline an economic plan addressing the paramount concern of the American people, Sanders described her anti-woke agenda. "Upon taking office just a few weeks ago," she said, "I signed executive orders to ban CRT, racism, and indoctrination in our schools, eliminate the use of the derogatory term 'Latinx' in our government, repealed COVID orders, and said never again to authoritarian mandates and shutdowns."

I applaud Governor Sanders for these actions. I also know what she's talking about. Most Americans, however, have not heard of CRT, have neither used nor encountered the ridiculous expression "Latinx," and behave as if the pandemic did not happen. Most voters are not political junkies. Woke discourse is incomprehensible to them, thank the Lord. What's real to them is education, health care, public safety, and wages.

Sanders was on the right path when she went through her education bill and said, "Republicans believe in an America where strong families thrive in safe communities. Where jobs are abundant, and paychecks are rising. Where the freedom our veterans shed their blood to defend is the birthright of every man, woman, and child."

This passage echoed what Ronald Reagan speechwriter Bill Gavin deemed "the litany" that shaped the 40th president's oratory: family, work, peace, neighborhood, and freedom. Sanders's version identified what Republicans see as the ends of political life. What about the means? How do we get from here to there?

Anti-wokeness is just part of the answer. To avoid the mistakes of 2022, Republican candidates not only have to attract more voters than they repel. They also must present to the country a full-spectrum governing program that spans abortion, education, health care, the economy, and foreign policy. A central plank of the domestic agenda will be raising the standard of living by re-creating the low-inflation, tight labor markets of the Clinton and Trump eras through border control, trade deals, cheap energy, and reduced taxes, spending, regulation, and income transfers.

Lamenting the condition of the world under Joe Biden is not enough. Voters want to hear what Republicans are going to do about it. And they prefer a party with bad answers to a party with none.