Conservatives have spent the last week dissecting their failure in the presidential election. But one element of that defeat has been largely absent from the discussion: the candidate. That’s because in the last month of the presidential campaign something remarkable happened. Though he had previously been distrusted by much of the Republican base and widely regarded as a poor campaigner, Mitt Romney seemed to erase all of the doubts of his supporters. His strong performance in the first presidential debate gave the Republicans faith in their leader as well as momentum.
In retrospect, that last surge of optimism on the right about the 2012 election seems foolish. As we have already discussed in detail, the polls that showed Romney leading or at least even with Obama during this period were almost certainly wrong. Democratic turnout would, to my surprise, resemble that of the “hope and change” moment of 2008, while fewer people voted for Romney than John McCain. A number of factors were responsible for this: a failure to respond to the changing demography of the nation including the Hispanic vote, the GOP’s comically inept get-out-the-vote effort, media bias, Hurricane Sandy, and Romney’s inability to exploit the Benghazi fiasco. But yesterday we were reminded that although those explanations were valid, there was one other reason why Obama won: Mitt Romney.
As Seth noted earlier today, in a conference call with donors and the press Romney inserted his foot firmly in his mouth once again when he claimed the president’s offer of “gifts” to voters was the reason he lost. Though there is a rationale critique to be made of the big government mentality that Obama advocated, this was wrongheaded on a lot of levels. As Jason Riley said today on Opinion Journal Live, this is just a Republican version of liberal attempts to blame voters for their defeats, of which Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas was the most prominent.
Even worse than that, the comments were nothing more than a repeat of Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe, the revelation of which was widely, and rightly, regarded as the low point of his campaign. It also brought us all back to the doubts that were expressed about Romney’s ability to defeat the president back during the GOP primaries.
Let’s specify that over the course of the last year, we learned a lot about who Mitt Romney is as a man and most of that was very much to his credit. The campaign brought into focus his intelligence, his seriousness of purpose and above all his innate decency. He is a good man and his skills would have enabled him to deal with the nation’s problems and be a good president.
But he was never going to be a good presidential candidate. The hole at the center of the campaign was always his inability to connect with ordinary voters. That was exacerbated by the disingenuous and largely false assault on his character that was the centerpiece of the Democratic campaign. But part of the reason that Obama was able to paint a high-minded and charitable man like Romney as a heartless plutocrat was the Republican’s awkwardness and inability to talk about himself or his ideas in a manner that would have made these slanders irrelevant. Romney’s propensity for gaffes, his tin ear for speaking to the people, and a background that made it easy for the Democrats to smear him were on display throughout 2012. Those who argued that he was the most electable of the Republicans who ran for president were not wrong, but that was always more of a criticism of his rivals than a compliment to him.
Conservatives despise the president so much that they were largely blind to his appeal to so much of the electorate. But in the last month of the 2012 campaign, they also tended to forget about the reasons why Romney was a fairly easy target for the president and his minions.
Ideology is important, but personalities always drive presidential politics. As much as Republicans are right to do some soul-searching about constituencies they have foolishly written off, as well as tactical political errors that were made this past year, any attempt to dissect the 2012 election must also include a realization that they didn’t have a very good candidate. If they pick a more impressive politician from their deep bench to lead them in 2016 (a year when the Democrats will no longer be able to rely on the historic appeal of Barack Obama) they are likely to do a lot better on Election Day.