One of my worries about the problem of center-right communication is that I'm not sure that conservative ideas are well communicated to those who do not consume the populist right-leaning media like talk radio and FOX News. This problem takes many forms. One of those is the problem of reaching nonwhites generally, but another is reaching the people (of all races) who will pass through the country's top colleges or those who will graduate at the top of their classes in less exclusive schools. This is the problem of winning over (or at least making marginal gains) among the country's A students.
As Ross Douthat writes, alot of these kids are going to end up in influential positions in society, and their cultural formation is probably pushing them to various kinds of left-of-center politics. Douthat worries that the Ivy League schools taking in more students from white working-class and rural backgrounds will only assimilate those students to the dominant values of the left-leaning establishment. Maybe, but I don't think losing those kids is so inevitable. I also don't think that conservatives are doing a very good job of talking to those kids.
My own experience with really bright, hard working, ambitious, and politically engaged (but not obsessive) kids is that conservative messages rarely get to them in a detailed or friendly form outside of major election campaigns. There are exceptions, but those kids are a minority and usually have to find conservative media on their own. That means that, for most of these kids, their perceptions of politics are framed by media institutions that are liberal-leaning to various degrees of intensity and openness. They are also going to go to colleges where their professors will be varying degrees of liberal. This makes a generalized friendliness to liberal politicians and policies the default position.
The populist conservative media isn't really much of a help. The vast majority of these kids don't listen to the radio for politics (neither talk radio nor NPR.) They aren't going to watch Hannity or Beck. Those shows aren't really designed for them anyway. Those shows work best for those who have already bought into the conservative narrative and they don't really take on the best arguments of the other side. But these kids will have heard the best arguments that liberals have to offer and they are smart enough not to forget them. It does no good to argue that these kinds of shows might lead kids to Hayek. They won't because most of them just will not watch that long. I remember Roger Ailes explaining one of the reasons that FOX News was such a success was because he was producing a product for a niche market underserved by liberal-leaning media. The niche market was "half the country." Well it wasn't half the country, but it was tens of millions of people. The problem is how to communicate to the audience that isn't part of that (not quite) half of the country and whose average member Charles Murray described as being a "bright reasonable person who doesn't agree with me but comes to my text ready to give me a shot."
While reading Kevin Smant's biography of Frank Meyer, I was struck (but not totally convinced) by James Burnham's vision for National Review as a conservative magazine for the broadly educated public, a magazine on the desks of "politicians, professors, bureaucrats" and not just ones who were self-consciously conservative. Burnham was picturing a media institution that could shift the uncommitted (or even the liberal) a little in the general conservative direction or even only on one issue, but also got the educated class to constantly take conservative ideas seriously. This isn't to endorse every prudential judgment made by Burnham or to deny that elements of Burnham's vision are dated. For instance, it probably won't be any one institution that that manages to improve conservative communication with the most highly educated fraction of the public.
The communication problem with this group is tough. We need a set of institutions that speak to an audience that will have heard many of the best (or maybe second best) liberal arguments for this or that liberal policy. As Murray pointed out, if conservatives "take a cheap shot" or "duck an obvious objection" to their arguments, they will lose this audience. All of which is to say that for conservatives to do better among this group, they will have to get the personalities and arguments of Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Peter Lawler and Jim Manzi (among others) into the faces and heads of more of our valedictorians and Ivy League graduates.
The comparison to Reagan may give Obama cheer, but it is not really apt. For even in Reagan's darkest days when, according to Gallup, six out of 10 Americans reported that they did not like the job he was doing, an astounding six in 10 nevertheless said they liked the man himself. He was, of course, phenomenally charming, authentic and schooled at countless soundstages in appearing that way. Just as important, the public had faith in the consistency of his principles, agree or not. This was the Reagan Paradox and it helped lift his presidency.
No one is accusing Obama of being likable. He is not unlikable, but he lacks Reagan's (or Bill Clinton's) warmth. What's more, his career has been brief. He led no movement, was spokesman for no ideology and campaigned like a Nike sneaker -- change instead of swoosh. He seems distant. No Irish jokes from him. For the average voter, he casts no shadow.
Reagan, by contrast, had been around forever. He was not defined solely by gauzy campaign ads but by countless speeches, two contentious and highly controversial terms as California governor, and a previous race for the presidency. There was never a question about who Reagan was and what he stood for. Not so Obama. About all he shares with Reagan at this point are low ratings.
What has come to be called the Obama Paradox is not a paradox at all. Voters lack faith in him making the right economic decisions because, as far as they're concerned, he hasn't. He went for health-care reform, not jobs. He supported the public option, then he didn't. He's been cold to Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu and then all over him like a cheap suit. Americans know Obama is smart. But we still don't know him. Before Americans can give him credit for what he's done, they have to know who he is. We're waiting.
Kevin Williamson writes that Republican politicians like Mitch McConnell aren't serious about restraining spending. He specifically cites bits of pork that McConnell is pursuing through the legislative process. Ramesh Ponnuru says not so fast, or at least that conservatives shouldn't focus too much on pork and instead use what influence they have to push reform on more important fiscal issues.
I tend to agree more with Ponnuru. I'm no fan of pork, and I think that it probably redirects federal resources in inefficient ways. I also don't think pork is the most pressing fiscal issue and it is not nearly as effective a political issue some think. I keep hearing McCain blathering on about earmarks and Obama noting that earmarks were only a small part of the federal budget. McCain kept trying to plug back by talking about this or that federal project (he seemed especially upset about some kind of light bulb in Illinois), but, in the midst of a financial crisis and a recession, most people recognized that the kinds of grants McCain was talking about weren't the biggest problem in their economic lives.
There is a school of thought that says that if we can't stop the kinds of federal spending that go to bike paths, bridges to nowhere, and such, then we will never get a sustainable federal budget. I wonder if the reverse isn't true and pork fighting is getting in the way of more important priorities. Maybe talking about pork is a way for politicians to seem fiscally conservative without having to actually vote for entitlement reforms or explain market-oriented health care reform . There might, in some circumstances, be a direct conflict between solvency and pork fighting. One can imagine a close vote on entitlement reform (means-testing, raising retirement ages, whatever) that might pass only in return for funding some local project (or fifty local projects). In any case, the public's attention is limited, and conservative writers and populariziers and Republican politicians would be better off focusing their energy on the kinds of policies that offer people higher living standards in the short and medium term and a program that puts the federal government's books somewhere in the neighborhood of balance. Reducing domestic discretionary spending on local projects should be part of that project, but the political energy spent on fighting pork should be proportional to the kinds of savings to be gotten as compared to the savings that might be gotten from other cuts or reforms.