STAVANGER, Norway -- The several hundred conservatives on the National Review's summer cruise, which I was asked to attend as a speaker, are united in what they don't like about the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, but divided on the best strategy for winning the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.
On a panel titled "The State of the GOP and Conservatism," Bob Costa, the magazine's Washington bureau chief, asks if anyone agrees with Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who thinks Republicans should be willing to shut down the government over the issue of defunding the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, who served as chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush, thinks closing government over a policy disagreement will only harm the Republican image, as it did nearly 20 years ago when Republicans tried that approach.
Former Florida Republican Congressman Allen West agrees. He thinks a better strategy is to "single out" portions of the ACA, deny funding for them and make the president defend those parts that polls show are unpopular. Mr. West suggests highlighting how small businesses are already being harmed by the bill, as many refuse to hire new employees or cut the hours of current workers to avoid costs associated with the law's health insurance requirements.
Mr. West, the only African-American on the roster of speakers, thinks the best strategy for winning over at least some minority voters is to focus on school choice. He says Republicans should offer to vote for an increase in the debt limit in exchange for Democrats allowing poor and minority children to select the schools offering them the best education and a ticket out of poverty, instead of supporting teachers' unions, which oppose charter schools.
Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a social conservative nonprofit, agrees. He notes that by 2020 the number of white voters will have dwindled to fewer than 65 percent. By contrast, the National Review crowd, which is nearly 100 percent white, does not look like America.
When it's my turn to comment, I quote columnist Thomas Sowell: "Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good." There is a history to liberal programs and whether they have worked or not. Republicans and conservatives should tap into the country's Puritan DNA, which detests waste. Every government agency should be required to justify not only its budget but its existence.
Republicans should cite publicly as examples people who have made it, either without government or with help from government, but who are now independent of government. Stop allowing Democrats to set the agenda. You can't disprove a negative that Republicans care only for the rich. Demonstrate that real caring means showing the poor a way out of poverty -- not sustaining them with a government check -- and that caring for the middle class means an improved economy, which would create more jobs and higher wages.
On the cruise ship's TV, I watch Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus fret over two forthcoming programs on NBC and CNN that he thinks will be pro-Hillary Clinton. If the shows air, he threatens not to allow those networks to provide questioners for the 2016 GOP presidential candidates' debates.
A better strategy would be to demand the right of Republicans to choose one panel member to question Democratic presidential candidates (I suggest a conservative journalist or radio talk show host) and allow the Democrats to do the same for the Republican debates. In the latter case, it would make little difference since most journalists are liberal and would ask predictable questions.
The cruising conservatives haven't yet coalesced around a presidential candidate (some think that a female governor should be on the ticket, especially if Mrs. Clinton is the Democratic nominee), but there seems to be agreement to first get the policies right, talking less about ideology and statistics and focusing more on the concerns of average voters.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency. Readers may email him at email@example.com.