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For 2024 GOP field, it’s time for Reagan’s ‘Eleventh Commandment’

Even before more possible candidates declare, a circular firing squad forms

We have seen former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley attack Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attack Haley, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu attack former President Donald Trump — and the presidential race is barely underway, Winston writes. Above, Haley discusses her bid last week.
We have seen former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley attack Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attack Haley, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu attack former President Donald Trump — and the presidential race is barely underway, Winston writes. Above, Haley discusses her bid last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It seems like a lifetime ago when remembering Ronald Reagan’s embrace in the 1960s of what came to be known as the “Eleventh Commandment.” Meant to limit intraparty fire, the maxim went like this: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

It was 1966, and the Republican Party was sharply divided after the humiliating defeat of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election as conservatives and establishment Republicans indulged in a self-defeating circular firing squad of blame and denial for the Electoral College beatdown from Lyndon B. Johnson. Two years later, Reagan entered the political scene, running for the California governorship, a Republican who believed that elections should and could be won on the basis of ideas — rather than personal attacks on the character and temperament of one’s opponents.

What a radical idea — offering up solutions to people’s concerns in order to win elections rather than employing the “politics of personal destruction” by any means necessary. The idea was to communicate a positive vision for the future by discussing and even debating, sometimes passionately, the policies you believed in while keeping the political discourse civil and respectful.

Today, Reagan’s commandment seems much like a sentimental family antique, rarely used but occasionally dusted off and displayed briefly for public consumption — then promptly returned to the attic and forgotten. That’s where we find ourselves today as the 2024 presidential primary season is officially underway and, already, the “Eleventh Commandment” has been kicked to the side of the road, left for dead before the campaign has really come to life.

Over the past couple of weeks, declared and potential candidates seem to be walking down the same path that led Republicans to nasty primaries in 2012 and 2016, costing them the election in the former and the popular vote in the latter.

We have seen former President Donald Trump attack Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attack former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Haley attack DeSantis. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan attack Trump. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem attack DeSantis. Trump attack Haley — and the race is barely underway.

Has it reached the circular firing squad stage yet? Is it too late for these and other potential candidates to take a step back and at least think about an idea-based strategy rather than a campaign driven by cheap political shots? Not if they listen to Reagan.

In his farewell address to the nation just before leaving office, Reagan said he had “won a nickname, ‘The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”

That he did, winning the governorship of California and two terms as president.

But this field of Republican candidates faces a political environment complicated by two factors. First, most political consultants, donors, super PACs, strategists and ad producers love rhetorical food fights. This kind of negative politicking is right up their alley and drives the content of most campaign advertising and communications created in the belief that appeasing the base is job one — particularly in primaries.

From their perspective, there is no such thing as too much red meat. Policy is just too complicated to explain and too boring to win elections. Ironic when solutions are what most voters, especially independents, really want.

Presidential primary candidates in both parties are also lured by the siren song of the media — social and otherwise — that values bombast and hyperbole above all else. Driven by the need for clicks and eyeballs, the media favors attack dogs over candidates who offer more serious policy proposals. Candidates understand that.

Contrary to what much of the media believes, calling people names or making wild charges is not great communicating, nor good politics. It’s a short-lived Twitter sound bite, media catnip that voters more and more ignore or see as either fake or irrelevant.

Even when the media has the opportunity to explore candidates’ ideas and their plans to deliver on those ideas, they often avoid policy questions, usually to goad candidates into attacks on their opponents. The presidential debates are prima facie evidence.

Not one question

A good example was a CNN presidential debate on Sept. 16, 2015. About a week before the debate, Jeb Bush announced his economic plan, including tax cuts, to help bolster the lagging economy. Yet, on debate night, the former Florida GOP governor got not one question about his plan — despite the fact that the economy was the top issue on voters’ minds. Not one question.

Instead, debate moderator Jake Tapper posed questions that pitted Bush against Trump on a range of “key” issues, from the influence of Bush’s Mexican American wife on his immigration views to whether he was “comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes.” Questions like these aren’t designed to enlighten, but to provoke.

Tapper apparently wasn’t interested in the impact of Bush’s tax policy on the economy. Instead, he used limited time to ask Bush what he wanted his Secret Service code name to be, and what woman he would want on the new $10 bill.

These are not serious questions but are designed to deliver the kind of answers that the “Twittersphere” will devour.

What the 2024 crop of presidential candidates need to understand is that bombastic and hyperbolic rhetoric — rather than offering policy solutions — may get you trending on Twitter, might even get you the nomination, but won’t get you elected president. But a compelling economic plan will.

If these candidates take away anything from last November’s midterm elections, it should be this: Republicans lost the Senate and failed to win a large majority in the House because attack strategies, even $100 million worth of negative ads, don’t work, and especially don’t work with independents. Exit polls after the congressional elections showed Republicans’ favorable/unfavorable ratings with independent voters were 33 percent favorable vs. 63 percent unfavorable.

That must significantly improve if Republicans want to retake the White House in 2024.

Earning back the support of independents will take a nominee with the economic optimism of Reagan, one who believes their ideas are more powerful and persuasive than personal attacks and negative campaigns. And a more serious media willing to put substance ahead of Twitter followers.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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