By Rick Santorum
We Republicans are in a box, one largely of our own making. The American electorate didn't buy our box. Millions stayed home instead - not because of how the box was wrapped, but rather, what we didn't include in it. It's time that conservative Republicans build a new box and offer Americans a broader, bolder and more inclusive vision of freedom and opportunity, as well as provide the tools to achieve them.
I've led strategic planning for Republicans on Capitol Hill and coordinated with the White House and the Republican National Committee while in party leadership, so I know this will not be easy. There has been no shortage of Mitt Romney postmortems with recommendations ranging from pursuing greater ideological purity to rebranding and "softening" positions to attract more Hispanics, women and young voters. Some have even blamed me and the other primary challengers for the election results.
These analyses come largely from the academic and pundit crowd. As Republican leaders confer over the next several weeks to prepare for a new Congress, we have to own up to the fact that millions of Americans who should have voted for our candidates were not against us, but at the same time felt we were not for them. Most notable among this electorate were lower-to-middle income and working-poor Americans, especially Hispanics. The American people do not want "gifts" from their leaders, particularly when these gifts leave a steep bill for our children to pay, but they do want us to be on their side.
Why failed president won
When asked which candidate "cares more about people like me," by a margin of 81%-18%, voters chose President Obama. Despite presiding over persistently high unemployment and widespread economic pessimism and despair, voters chose Obama because they thought he "cared more" about them. As the American Enterprise Institute's Henry Olsen points out, the entire Obama campaign was built around this message: Romney and the Republicans do not care about you. And that narrative - the 47% - carried the day. Having nothing to run on and fearing indifferent voters, the Obama team pushed this message and won.
While the Democrats may have won, that is not a message that will carry them forward. Why? It's a cynical one, designed to turn off voters. This time, it worked. About 8 million fewer voters came to polls in 2012 than in 2008. If Romney had received the number of votes John McCain did, he might have won.
So here's our opportunity: America is waiting to see which party will offer solutions that work, that connect to their lives and that will rebuild the ladder of opportunity that so few have been able to climb since the devastating recession. America thrives when the American Dream is alive, when we reach for the rungs of the ladder to achieve it - education, job and family stability - and they are there. But they have not been, and we have not showed America that we have the tools to put the rungs back. Conservative Republicans need to put the policies in our box that will fix our failing schools, make hard work pay off and encourage family stability. This will mean true tax reform, supporting sectors such as energy and manufacturing, and promoting a family-first economic agenda that recognizes the unique role of the family as the bedrock of lower middle income America.
Right role for government
When I promoted this agenda during the primary, it was called "supply-side economics for the working man." Allowing for a role for government policy in these arenas is not abandonment of our first principles. I believe we need to return to those principles, all of them, with a holistic integrated message that applies to the problems that people face today. America does not need to be transformed. America needs to rely upon what she has always relied upon: faith, family, opportunity and a free economy where all can rise.
Governor Romney ran an honorable and hard-fought campaign and nearly became our next president. But we as a party, the party of Ronald Reagan and "Morning in America," failed to provide an agenda that shows we care.
We do not need to have the "rebranding" vs. "purity" debate. That false choice is not what this is about. It's about the fact that a vast majority of Americans want a better life for themselves and their families. They want the opportunity for work and independence. They want a good education for their kids. And they want to feel safe from harm. We don't need new wrapping paper. We need to offer new tools for the box so we can rebuild the American Dream.
Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania sought the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, finishing second in delegates to Mitt Romney. He is co-founder of Patriot Voices.