The GOP Can't Fall for the False 'Center v. Right' Debate

The Republican Party can be the party of the future, but it has to figure out how to tell its story.

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Kristen Soltis is the director of policy research at The Winston Group.

Just one week after the election, countless theories have been floated explaining President Barack Obama's re-election and the Republicans' defeats. From Hurricane Sandy to demographics to the auto bailouts to bad polling, everyone's got someone or something else to blame.

One of the first and most central debates that emerged is over whether the Republican Party needs to "move to the right" or "move to the middle" in response to this defeat. Moderate Republicans point to their dwindling numbers in elected office and say the party has marginalized their voice and alienated swing voters. Many conservatives argue the opposite, saying the GOP has left its core believers uninspired and its core principles undefended.

Both of these camps should be lauded for realizing that reform is needed in the Republican Party. It is healthy and important to have a debate to figure out how be to move forward. Yet both camps also miss the mark.

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The glaring truth we Republicans have to face following this election is that there are simply not enough of us anymore. Independent voters broke for Mitt Romney by a five-point margin, but the significant numbers advantage enjoyed by Democrats put President Obama back in the White House. We have not evolved our coalition to keep up with a changing America. Given this reality and the need for the GOP to expand its ranks, what is the Republican Party offering that would persuade anyone to join our cause?

The exit polls paint a sobering picture for the GOP. There are the obvious signs of trouble: Huge deficits with young voters for a second presidential election straight and falling support among Hispanics both come to mind. Despite the troubled economy, Mitt Romney only slightly edged President Obama on the question of who would better handle the economy. Some 53 percent of voters—including one out of 10 voters who cast a ballot for Romney—said that Romney's policies would generally favor the rich.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The solution to these problems is not for the party to pack up its tent and move it a few feet to the left or the right on the ideological spectrum. The challenge to Republicans and conservatives today is to answer the question: How do our policies make everyone better off? How do we solve the problems we face in the modern era? And how do we tell that message to others?

Less than two weeks before the election, President Obama gave an interview to MTV on issues that matter to young voters. Entrepreneurship is a goal of many young Americans, and the president was asked what his policies would do to help young people start their own business. His response was excellent. He talked about how he had rolled back financial regulation to make it easier for small investors to contribute online to projects so that people could seek crowd-funding to jumpstart their ideas.

He gave a concrete, fresh solution for a real problem people face, and it was based in conservative principles: empowering individuals to drive innovation rather than government, peeling back harmful regulation, giving investors more freedom with private funds. It's a problem when our opponent can explain how to apply our ideas better than we can.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

This isn't about jettisoning the principles that the GOP stands for; it's about applying them. We need to make sure our policies implement our principles correctly and that voters agree the policies we propose solve the problems they face. If conservatives believe that their policies ideas are what America needs to become a stronger, more prosperous nation, we need to get much better at connecting our values to the solutions that matter in people's lives. Too often, Republicans find themselves hamstrung by talking points that are stale.

We live in fear of the phrase "if you're explaining, you're losing" and wind up saying nothing at all about how our ideas lead to real, positive outcomes for all. As a result, principles that are more needed than ever in this country are seen as ill-suited to the demands of the modern world. If we truly believe that our ideas can be applied to create a brighter future for America—and all Americans—then it's time we started telling that story.