The GOP needs a new vocabulary to win debt showdown

In late February 2012, with the Republican presidential primaries in full swing, I told a reporter from The Hill newspaper that eventual nominee Mitt Romney should be more mindful of his words on the campaign trail, particularly as they related to immigration and unions. His divisive rhetoric, I said, could come back to haunt him in a general-election match-up with President Obama.
 
I went on about my day, confident I’d given an honest and accurate assessment. I had campaigned for John McCain in 2008 and saw then how the Obama campaign would dig up statements and use them at the most critical moments. And it’s not just the Obama campaign. In this age of YouTube and handheld cameras, candidates will be held responsible for every public utterance.
 

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In fact, I got an up-close lesson in this myself. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talker, got wind of my analysis in The Hill and devoted a good bit of his next show to calling me a no-name hack who wanted Romney to betray conservative principles.
 
Rush has the right to his opinion, and most of the time he and the no-name hack agree. And I was not advocating that Romney abandon conservative principles. What troubled me was the language he used — the hardness, if you will, of his rhetoric. That may play well in the primaries, but it becomes a problem when less-involved voters begin to tune in.
 
Romney never seemed to get this. There was the "47 percent" gaffe, “self-deportation,” his liking to fire people, Ann’s two Cadillacs. It all added up to a candidate who couldn’t connect. In the end, President Obama was able to call for “those who have been fortunate to pay just a little bit more” and still pummeled Romney, 81-18, among voters who wanted their president to “care about people like me.”
 
So what does this mean for the present situation? It means ill-considered language is costly. It means, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) points out, you can’t convince people to listen on economic policy or healthcare “if they think you want to deport their grandmother.” It means that if you’re Todd Akin, you stick to your pro-life script — a winner in Missouri — and keep your notions of the biology of rape to yourself.
 
It means, in the present context, you keep the conversation focused where it belongs: on the president’s refusal to embrace any level of fiscal responsibility. We’re more than $16 trillion in debt — $5 trillion of that added in President Obama’s first term and $1 trillion-or-more deficits as far as the eye can see. Addressing this is not a priority for him, but it is becoming a priority for the American people. And, as Bill O’Reilly, the Newsday columnist and not the TV host, says, Republicans haven’t been more right about an issue and Democrats more wrong since slavery.
 
Americans are open not to more brinksmanship but to rethinking entitlements — highlighted by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — which consume nearly two-thirds of spending now and will consume a significantly higher percentage within 20 years. Remember, Republicans voted for the Ryan budget, which made some brave steps in this direction, and were reelected to the House. Nancy Pelosi’s Medi-Scare rhetoric fell flat. People know we can’t continue to borrow 40 cents of every dollar we spend. They know something has to change.
 
Republicans must become the party of responsibility. Forget sales gimmicks. Resurrect and refine the Ryan plan. Or come up with something new. Change the tone to a debate over conservative proposals to address our fiscal problems. Americans want it solved. They will see attempts to do so as “caring about people like me.” And they know — even those who don’t tune in so often — that Democrats, particularly President Obama, don’t take this seriously.
 
Obama pretends to decry the partisan brawls that arise every few weeks as we reach borrowing limits, the end of continuing resolutions to fund the government and other instant “crises.” But, in reality, he relishes the chance to demagogue, to proclaim that “[w]e are not a deadbeat nation,” when we most assuredly are and to make Republicans look hardhearted and disposed to favor the rich.
 
Conservatives have an opportunity to regain the rhetorical high ground. But we can’t be reckless about it. The situation is serious. The president is not. And Americans know the problem must be addressed quickly.

 
Ford O'Connell is a Republican strategist, conservative activist and political analyst. A frequent commentator on Fox News, CNN and other broadcast media, he worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign.