The elephants in the room


I've just come back from a conference in the US, and it definitely seems to me that the US Republicans are likely to make the same mistakes the British Conservatives made after they were booted out in 1997. They are letting themselves get too negative, too angry, and too introspective to win back the public.

Now, it's true that Obama is governing far to the left of where he campaigned. And yes, he does want to end US exceptionalism and turn America into a European-style social democracy. And of course, the money he is throwing around in stimuli and bailouts is truly unprecedented. So a little anger is justified, and a little negativity is entirely understandable. But it can't become a defining characteristic, otherwise voters just switch off. You have to have something positive to say as well.

None of that means that the Republicans need to sell out on their policy positions. There are of course some 'modernizers' who think American conservatives need to embrace environmentalism and socialized medicine before they can become electable again, but these people completely miss the point. As amazing as it seems to people who spend all their time obsessing about policy, most voters (and particularly those swing voters who actually decide who wins) don't really care. What matters is the appearance of competence and likeability. Or to put it another way, the Republicans didn’t lose in 2008 because people suddenly rejected all the policies they stood for; they lost because they were seen as incompetent, corrupt and alien.

What they need to do now – in political terms – is to rebuild that tarnished brand. They need to find a new way of talking about politics and the economy, and a new way of presenting themselves. And they can only do that be being positive, and hopeful, and develop their own vision of how to solve America's problems. Think of Reagan when he beat Carter.

If they can do that, then they stand a real chance of winning back Congress in the mid-terms and winning back the presidency in 2012. But if they just carry on moaning like the world's about to end, they don't stand a chance.