Is the Right Finally Learning? ‘Policy Rich’ and ‘Politically Poor’ Won’t Cut It

Despite what Jon Stewart says, most conservative activists that I have had the pleasure of meeting over the last twenty-three years that I have been involved in politics are really well-informed people. They listen to a lot of talk radio, read a lot of books, and watch a lot of news shows. If the ratings of MSNBC are any indication, leftists are not so committed to their cause.

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It never ceases to amaze me how many of my fellow “right wingers” can quote historical facts and economic stats from the writing of the Constitution to the Reagan Revolution.  Sure, my peeps often confuse Keynesian liberalism with socialism, but no movement is perfect. It is better than liberals who use the term “fascist” to describe conservatives when every 20th-century fascist dictator was actually left wing. C’est la vie.

Where my fellow conservatives typically fall short is on practical political knowledge.  Winning campaigns and passing legislation takes more than just being right. If General Douglas MacArthur was correct,“there is no substitute for victory,” so we must do a better job at reading the tea leaves in order to win the fights we can actually win and duck the battles that are simply not worth the casualties.

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I was on Capitol Hill in 1995 when Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole decided to take President Bill Clinton head-on over the federal budget. I walked out of a strategy meeting at the time, looked at a colleague, and asked, “Do you really think we can take Clinton on in a mass media fight and win?” I am not a prophet, but we lost that battle, and it helped propel Clinton into a second term.

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Was that skirmish smart or dumb? A smart lawyer once told me, “Never hit a man unless you know you will knock him down.” Wise words.

Let me give you another example. I had never been to the state of Delaware until 2008.  One of the first people I met was Christine O’Donnell. I immediately liked her. She is a very sweet person.

A few years later, Christine took on moderate Republican Congressman Mike Castle for a senate seat. With the help of the Tea Party (of which I am a proud member), she defeated him but then went down faster than the Titanic in the general election. Founder and editor of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, was right when he wrote that it just wasn’t smart to nominate a person who is right but can’t win in a blue state over someone who is only right half the time but can win. The former gets you nowhere but the latter helps your cause. In the words of the professional coach Bob Bihl, it is all about moving the ball down the field.

Don’t get me wrong, if I could waive a magic wand and pick the senator for Delaware, I would pick Christine every day and twice on Sunday, but that’s simply not the reality. One of my mentors in seminary said, “Reality is always your friend,” and that is as true in politics as it is in church life.

If my fellow conservatives want to turn the victories of 2014 into a sustained historical movement for the betterment of the nation, then we need to be smarter. We need to understand that only about one-third of the country agrees with us, and that and to win, we need to convert independent moderates. We need to know the ins-and-outs of how campaigns really work. I would really recommend that every serious conservative read the following books:

The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, by Sasha Issenberg (Broadway Books 2013). The future of political campaigns does not belong to “big idea guys” but detail-oriented, social media-addicted nerds. I brought this idea up to a leader of a major political action committee and he dismissed it out of hand. Big mistake.

The Political Campaign Desk Reference: A Guide for Campaign Managers, Professionals and Candidates Running for Office, by Michael McNamara (Outskirt Press 2012). A wonderful, readable “one-stop” guide for those new to campaigns. Highly recommended.

Campaign Craft: The Strategies, Tactics, and Art of Political Campaign Management (Praeger Studies in Political Communication), by Michael John Burton and Daniel Shea (Praeger 2010).  A dry but fairly comprehensive introduction to political campaigns. Brew some strong coffee and work through it chapter-by-chapter.

Let’s do better, my fellow conservatives. Let’s do better.


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Matt Rawlings is an attorney, pastor, former Congressional aide, past music video director and prodigal preacher’s kid. Matt resides in Portsmouth, Ohio with his wife Emily, his son Jackson and his dog Duke (named after John Wayne not the university).  Matt blogs regularly at

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