McCloskey: Here’s my campaign advice for the GOP

The GOP presidential field is shaping up. The first debate will be at the end of summer. As a retired campaign hand, I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

First, we need messaging based in reality. There seems to be bifurcation in the GOP field between those running on darkness — the end of America as we know it if we have a second Biden term — versus those happy warriors saying it’s a new day, a great day in America, and the only thing that’s wrong is our attitude and some woke stuff. Having hung around Republican campaigns over the last two decades, I can promise you that nearly all consultants paid big bucks argue for the latter approach.

But a smiley optimism risks ringing hollow in today’s environment. Patriotism is at an all-time low. Only 38% are “extremely proud” to be Americans, according to Gallup. Confidence in institutions has plummeted, with the largest declines in the presidency and Supreme Court. Congress ranks dead last with just 7% of respondents expressing a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Capitol Hill. And few people believe that their children will be better off than they are, according to Wall Street Journal polling.


Dare I venture to posit that the cowboy hat, swagger and tax cuts of Ronald Reagan would have trouble sweeping these dust bunnies under the rug. And remember, he didn’t. “Morning in America” was his second term. In his 1980 nomination acceptance speech, he struck a more sober tone: “Never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence, any one of which could destroy us. We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity.”


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We need candidates who look square at the challenges we face and unite the country behind them.

Which brings me to the second point: It’s time for policy. This cycle has been light on policy so far. Among Republicans, it’s mostly been about “not being that guy” — either Biden or Trump.


To be sure, there’s always a debate within campaigns about when to introduce policy specifics. Do it too early, you give your opponents something to attack. Do it too late, you look flimsy. And policy in general has seemed to increasingly take a backseat in campaigns. In the “old days,” (as in the 2016 and 2020 cycles when I helped run policy for two presidential campaigns), we’d fly policy experts in from around the country to brief the candidate in meetings that lasted a full day, often more, pulling insights from a broad group to build a platform. I’m not sure that happens anymore.

Policy has taken a backseat to a cult of personality. In the newly announced RNC rules governing GOP debates this summer, a candidate must pledge to support the eventual Republican presidential nominee to get on the stage. When the RNC was asked by former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson if candidates still need to support him ifthe eventual nominee is a felon — ah-hem, Donald Trump — the answer was yes.

Maybe it’s just me, but this makes the whole thing feel small. If we’re doing the loyalty pledge thing, I’d rather it be to the Constitution, or conservative principles, or democracy. Campaigns are a time to put forward new ideas, showcase an array of perspectives on the way forward. Even within in conservatism, there are a lot of differing paths that can be taken, not to get in line before you even get out of the gate. In my college debate class, this RNC loyalty test would be met with a “for shame” table thump. It makes the RNC look like a mob boss, not the upholder of conservatism in the public square.


I’m painfully biased here, but I say we should get back to the old ways. The job these candidates are running for is to govern and solve problems. This requires more than naming a policy change or tweeting about it or name dropping CRT. It requires serious thinking about how to actualize it and move the policy through Congress (because we don’t have kings, of course) and a giant bureaucracy and in a way that doesn’t simply get overturned in the next election.

Of course, we can’t solve all of our policy challenges, so I’d advise candidates to focus on the two or three things they really want to change when in office and have plans to do so that go beyond a tweet or a whim.

Are policy white papers necessary to win votes? Of course not. They didn’t work for Jeb Bush or for Mitt Rommey or, goodness knows, the policy charts of Ross Perot, but they demonstrate seriousness, and we need seriousness these days.

We are a huge, complex, diverse nation. Our policy problems and solutions are too.


Which brings me to the third point: Watch Sen. Tim Scott on The View. It’s required viewing for my side of the aisle. The other side too. It’s what healthy politics should look like, not reductionist yes/no, right/wrong, us/them tropes, but something more honest and profound about a topic that really matters.

Here’s what happened: Sen. Scott comes in. The audience boos. He opens with his compelling story of growing up in a single parent household, switching schools four times by the fourth grade, his family being short on cash. Now, he’s a U.S. freakin’ senator (my words, not his). He says “education is the closest thing to magic in America” and talks about why he would focus his administration on education reform for low-income kids — a policy idea, and one focused on creating more economic opportunity, not walling people out of it. Great!

But the best part of the exchange is over this question: Is America systemically racist? The hosts say that his ascent is the exception, not the rule. He cites statistics about the progress that’s been made by African Americans in recent years, including in economic outcomes and political representation.They present evidence of systemic injustice. He says he’s experienced it, and says that we’re on a journey of becoming a more perfect union, progress measured over generations. It gets uncomfortable. They keep going back and forth.

Here’s what I think was the magic for me: He held ground in the “in between” where truth and complexity live. Things aren’t perfect, really bad things keep happening, but we’ve made progress. And … there’s more to do. And … this is what I want to do. And … both sides of the aisle could do better. Yes, there’s only one Black senator in the GOP. But there are only two Black senators in the other party. This is a shared human problem. Let’s get off our high horses and talk about how to move forward together.


It was thoughtful and honest, with real meat behind it, real conviction, lived experience. More of that, please.

The hope of American politics isn’t dead yet.

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