A Sherman-Like Warning Needed for Republicans

What happens when the Republican Party forfeits the public education system and large sections of the media to the political left, fails to modernize its party organization or repair its brand, and actively disdains and distances itself from its allied state level grassroots organizations? We’re seeing the results today in Barack Obama’s opinion poll numbers.

Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer was exactly right when he said last month on Fox News Channel’s Special Report that Obama’s message is a fraud that is really only believed by people under the age of thirty. The bad news is that too few Americans understand the consequences of an Obama presidency because Republican leadership continues to fail in its chief task of advancing an economic, social and foreign policy message.

Back in April former presidential advisor Peter Wehner wrote in the Wall Street Journal that John McCain “needs to become an educator-in-chief on matters of political philosophy.” That echoes co-authors Morton Frisch and Richard Stevens who wrote decades ago that the nation’s big policy challenges require leadership that is able to “take the whole nation to school.”

Last month I had the opportunity to talk politics with like minded-people from different parts of the country over the course of a couple of weeks. It’s clear to me that the Republican leadership failure is not unique to any one region.

America’s political right, the third of the country that goes to the trouble of informing itself on the issues through the press, national commentary, cable news and talk radio constitutes probably the best informed “choir” ever. In my recent travels I enjoyed meeting a few dozen representatives of this demographic. They are successful, smart, and interesting people from states like Massachusetts, California, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and a few others.

Like their counterparts in Illinois, however, these well informed Americans don’t know exactly what’s needed to turn things around — to truly rebuild the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Many of the sentiments expressed by these folks went beyond frustration to fatalism. The fact that their knowledge of the state of the nation is combined with such pessimism is a grave indictment of our current political leaders.

These people have read about the important cultural challenges we’re facing. They understand the global economy, supply and demand, and the nature of incentives. They’re fully aware of the foreign policy traps and have no illusions about our friends or enemies overseas. Yet the conversation comes to a halt when the subject turns to how in the world we can get more of that independent third of the electorate to share their views.

In late 1861 as the American Civil War was just picking up speed, William Tecumseh Sherman was warning Union leaders (including President Abraham Lincoln) that the struggle against the South was going to be more difficult, take longer, require more troops and cost more bloodshed than any of them seemed willing to admit.

Because his brother was a United State Senator, Sherman’s voice was heard and his views were publicized widely in the press. However, instead of his warning being heeded, Sherman was judged by many people to be literally crazy.

Author Michael Fellman in his book Citizen Sherman writes that Sherman’s “mental stress became a national sensation.” Of course Sherman’s prediction about the war proved accurate. A footnote: Sherman’s national reputation was restored early in 1862 because of his bravery at the battle of Shiloh, and as many know, General Sherman’s taking of Atlanta in 1864 helped turn public opinion in support of the war and Lincoln won a second term as a result.

This historical reference comes to mind because it seems as if many of today’s Republican leaders, conservative thinkers and commentators treat the current political battles much like the North viewed the threat of the South in 1861. For all the talent and experience on our side, there is little attention given to the practical realities facing Republicans early in this new century.

What, specifically, needs to change? What specifically, has to be done? Simply put, we need to fight on all fronts. If the Democrats and the liberal left are engaged on a battlefield, our side must also join that fight.

How can that be accomplished when those on our side don’t make their living from tax dollars, but are instead building businesses, raising families, and trying to make ends meet? Is it even possible to impel more conservatives to take up their responsibility as citizens and enter the fray?

In 2006, we witnessed grassroots energy — in Illinois of all places — from the social right through the Protect Marriage effort. In 2007, those advocating for the rule of law and secure borders rose up nationally and had their voices heard all the way to Washington, D.C. In 2008, the libertarian right was energized by the campaign of Ron Paul.

Can these groups row in the same direction for one political party? Of course they can. They have before, and with the right leadership they will again. There is plenty of policy overlap between the groups, and wise leaders within the groups see how they all lose unless they work together on points of agreement.

And they’re not even the only ones who nicely fit into a larger Republican Party coalition. The over-taxed and over-regulated, school reform advocates, pro-lifers, Second Amendment defenders, supporters of tort reform and consumer-based health care reformers are examples of others who can and will work together if credible leadership steps forward.

There are those who think a person has to be nuts to say we have the ability to fight on all fronts. My guess is that viewpoint is arrived at because most of today’s headlines are about the rising energy on the political left. As a veteran of many political battles I’m convinced it’s not crazy to believe we can match that energy and win the debates — and the ongoing political war.

William Tecumseh Sherman painted a dire picture in 1861 about the relative strength and will of the South. But his point wasn’t that the North would lose, it was that the Union could be preserved only if its leadership woke up to the reality of the enormous battle ahead.