The time for mourning has come and gone. Before we can rebuild, we need to understand what failed in the first place.
First of all, we did not have the wrong guy. All the conservatives who fought for a non-Romney in the primaries, and then rallied behind Romney and found themselves quite pleased with him when he pulled ahead, have once again pulled out their knives. If they think Santorum or Cain, Gingrich or Perry would have done better, they are living in a bubble with sparkly rainbows and unicorns dancing in the glen. Since I supported Romney in the primaries, I recognize I have a vested interest in defending that decision. But Romney did not lose because he wasn’t conservative enough. Mitt was the best candidate we’ve had since Reagan. Certainly better than Dole, McCain and Bush the Elder, and in my opinion he was better than Bush the Younger. Bush would not have beat an incumbent Obama. If Mitt had been able to make the conservative case as powerfully as Reagan, would it have been different? I’m not sure. Of course, everyone is a brilliant strategist when they’re not the ones running the campaign, and they’re practically omniscient after the results are in. No question, there were things that could have been done differently. No candidate is perfect; no campaign is perfect; but Romney was a strong candidate with a strong campaign. Of all the Republican politicians who realistically might have run, Jeb Bush is the only one who might have stood a better shot.
It was never going to be a cakewalk. One of the prevailing assumptions of the anyone-but-Romney crowd in the primaries was that we could run Gary Coleman — yes, even though he’s dead — and beat Obama in this economy. These were the same people who could not believe that Romney was not wiping the floor with the President. They were living in an alternate reality. They believed the rest of the country viewed Obama as a feckless failure, just like they did. But the truth is, most of the country still likes Obama personally, and views his performance in the presidency as a middling performance at worst.
Obama’s approval numbers were low, but (as I said they would) they rose once he began to campaign and tout his “accomplishments.” An 8 percent unemployment rate is bad, but it doesn’t look so bad when it’s dropped from 10 percent, most of the electorate still blames Bush, and the media is eager to make it look like significant progress. Plus, the advantages of incumbency are massive. Obama rallied his base with a string of executive orders and with his public turnabout on gay marriage. He purchased the favor of the young through his college loan reform, and locked down the single female vote with the Lily Ledbetter bill and the Hispanic vote with his immigrant reform by executive fiat. The successful mission against Osama bin Laden effectively muted any criticism on foreign affairs. Benghazi gave him the opportunity to repeat numerous times how decisively he had purportedly acted (the alternative, Obama-left-them-to-die narrative coming from the Right was always too plainly self-serving and never caught on outside the conservative press) in directing the military and intelligence to respond, and Sandy gave him the opportunity to tour the disaster scene in his bomber jacket with one of Romney’s most important surrogates slobbering on his arm. Obama is a formidable campaigner, performed quite well in the second and third debates, and had a massive advantage in GOTV and new media. Naturally he had the mainstream media completely in his pocket, steadfast support from unions, and academic and entertainment establishments making the case to the youth vote.
Finally, let’s not blame it on Sandy. Yes, she was a factor. The exit polls make that clear. Clearly the Obama campaign saw the golden opportunity and rushed to put him on the scene in his commander-in-chief jacket. But Republicans lost seats in the House and the Senate and lost control of some state houses — and this can’t be blamed on Sandy. The exit polls also make clear that Republicans have some clear problems appealing to specific demographics, and if we blame Sandy (or the strength of the Obama ground game) for the loss we rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn some very important lessons. Here, I think, are some of the things we need to learn:
- The Republican brand is terrifically damaged, especially with minorities, the young, single women, and the religiously unaffiliated. It’s tempting to blame this on Bush, but I don’t think that’s quite right. For one thing, the list of Republican malfeasants is long, from Newt to Mourdock. For another, I don’t think Bush’s actions have harmed the brand nearly as much as the failure of the Bush-ites to defend them. Bush has disappeared since he left office, and he’s so radioactive no one wants to defend him. It’s ludicrous that Bush alone takes the blame for the financial crash of 2008 — and yet that’s the view that has taken hold in the absence of any argument to the contrary. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Obama held onto the presidency because America still blames Bush for the bad economy, and people still blame Bush because we have failed to press a better and more accurate narrative of the financial collapse out into the mainstream.
- The Evangelical Vote is still united — but evangelicals are both a blessing and a curse to the Republican party. Everyone is talking about the death of the Christian Right, but I don’t see it quite that way. 8 of 10 evangelicals voted for Romney. Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition was one of the most powerful forces the GOP had this year. The evangelical vote for Romney was stronger than it was for the born-again GW Bush. It’s just not enough. Also, evangelicals (I’m trying to be objective here) damage the brand through Akin- and Mourdock-like boneheadedness and make it harder for Republicans to reach out to youth, single women, and the nones.
- Conservative media too is a blessing and a curse. After watching this happen to liberals for decades, this time it was conservatives who fell prey to the echo chamber effect. We believed our own hype. Fox News and talk radio fought to bring the Mexican gun-running story, Benghazi-gate, and any number of other mistakes and misstatements into the conversation, but those things never penetrated the mainstream media. They’re just preaching to the choir — and the choir needs to get out a little more. The simple fact is, conservatives made the mistake of assuming that the rest of the country too viewed Obama as a feckless failure. But the rest of the country by and large likes Obama and thinks he has done, at worst, a middling job.
- Conservatives are losing the culture. State propositions and referenda, along with the direction of the youth vote and the growing Hispanic vote, suggest that conservatives (and the evangelicals who stand at their base) are losing the struggle for American culture on issues like gay marriage, immigration and the role of government. The Obama campaign framed this election as a decision between “you’re on your own” or “we’re all in this together.” It’s a fantastically self-serving way of framing the decision, of course, but it resonates because conservatives have not provided a powerful moral argument for their vision of economy and community. The Republican party is viewed as the harbor of bigotry and greed. As long as that’s the image, it will not be an effective party.
Christians, of course, have a higher hope, but I’m simply looking now at the human level of politics. The Republican party’s best hope, in a nutshell, is for grassroots cultural renewal and for drawing on the strengths of its governors, putting forward voices who are innovative and accomplished, diverse and winsome, men and women who represent the Republican vision of social mobility and who can make the moral case for conservative priorities. More on this soon.