It is a mark of how entirely bereft of ideas the 2012 contest was that the post-election analysis has come to center not on what Barack Obama will do in his second term—which is really the only thing that matters now—but rather on the condition and fate of the Republican Party. Obama won a historic victory in some respects: If you had said two years ago that the president could win reelection with an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent and 4 million fewer people in the workforce than when he was elected, most analysts would have called you crazy. Even so, his victory is being downgraded by the rush to portray the election less as a triumph for him and more as a possibly fatal defeat for the Republicans.
Obama earned the downgrade. His final vote total will be 4 to 5 percent smaller than in 2008—marking the first time in American history a president has won his first bid for reelection with fewer voters and with fewer electoral votes than in his initial run. (By contrast, Mitt Romney’s final total surpassed that of his Republican predecessor in 2008.) More important, Obama spent 18 months running aggressively and without letup for reelection with no second-term governing agenda whatsoever. All we really know is that he intends to ensure the expiry of one element of the 2001–2003 tax cuts—the lowering of the top marginal rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent.
The president did not even try to use the election to ratify the successes of his first term, as George W. Bush did when he put the problematic war in Iraq front and center in 2004—which gave Bush surprising running room afterward even as the war plummeted in popularity. By contrast, Obama did not want to run on his impressive legislative record at all. He never spoke the word stimulus and made only sparing reference to ObamaCare.
The only one of his policies to be trotted out and petted and celebrated was the bailout of the auto industry in 2009, and that primarily because he sought to use it as a way of winning the state of Ohio. It now appears this tactic may not have worked as his campaign intended, which was to win over white working-class voters. Nate Cohn, the superlative election blogger at the New Republic, points out that “Obama did worse among Ohio’s white voters than John Kerry [in 2004]” while performing better with them in other Midwestern states, including Iowa and Wisconsin. He continues:
If there was anywhere that the president should have excelled due to the auto bailout, it would have been northeast Ohio. But the president lost northeastern Ohio’s two classic white middle class bellwethers….[He] lost additional ground in traditionally Democratic stretches of eastern Ohio, where Obama performed worse than any Democrat since McGovern [in 1972] in a stretch of “coal country” along the Ohio River…[and] poorly in southwestern Ohio, including one deeply conservative and culturally southern county where Obama’s performance was the worst by a Democrat since at least 1868.
And so the sole substantive act of leadership Barack Obama clasped to his bosom seems to have failed to generate the specific result he was seeking.
This fact heightens the primary reality of Election 2012: Obama’s victory was an astonishing technical accomplishment but in no way whatsoever a substantive one. His team spent four years building a peerless political instrument, a virtual machine, to get him reelected. Both the methodology and the practical approach were nuts and bolts. The president needed to win enough votes among blacks, Latinos, single women, and young people in the right electoral-college states to assure his victory. And the issues he ran on he tailored to these populations. For Latinos he announced he would impose new immigrant-friendly regulations that did not have to pass Congressional muster. For single women, he knit together a vision of a cradle-to-grave existence helped along by direct government efforts in the much-derided slide show called “The Life of Julia.” Derided it might have been, but it captured an essential need that single women (many of them with children who do not have a father participating in their lives) have for a safe harbor, at the very least.
It was voters younger than 30 who provided the entire margin of victory; Obama won them by 5.4 million votes, while Romney won those more than 30 years old by 1.9 million, according to the pollster Kristen Soltis. Obama was alluring to them for several reasons. For students, he spoke of expanding college loans—which is a curse as much as a blessing, considering how such loans tend to raise the cost of college and mire people in debt before they have an income. For everyone else under 30, he offered a vague but overarching social liberalism: support for gay marriage, free contraception, and a general sense of connection to the wider popular culture that stood in contrast to Romney’s personal squareness.
Add all of these targeted appeals together, and toss in Obama’s extraordinarily harsh and biting attacks on Mitt Romney over the course of the summer of 2012 as a heartless and vicious vulture capitalist hiding the dreadful extent of his wealth in tax returns he refused to release—$100 million was spent on this message in Ohio alone—and you have what may have been the smartest and most effective political campaign of our lifetime. So effective, in fact, that it helped not only him but his party, with surprising victories in several close House and a few Senate races attributable to Obama’s strength at the top of the ticket.
Most important, the Obama campaign maximized its vote in the solid base Obama and his party share: African Americans. Obama may not have succeeded in winning over working-class whites in Ohio, but he didn’t have to. The black vote in the state actually grew by 30 percent over 2008, something the Romney campaign (and most observers) didn’t think was possible. That success in the most basic, most boring, most tedious aspect of politicking—pure, simple get-out-the-vote work—is what political professionals will study about the Obama campaign for decades.
So, yes, Barack Obama’s victory was remarkable, but it was—as his own campaign manager himself proudly says—entirely a matter of getting the mechanical details right and building up from there. The Obama campaign spent four years figuring out how to maximize his vote (one of the advantages of incumbency; Karl Rove did the same for George W. Bush between 2001 and 2004) and a year constructing a strategy to minimize the vote of his opponent. The results were almost perfect.
Another argument in favor of the technical nature of the victory requires us to step back in time and note how well the president and his team were playing the game in the wake of the Democratic midterm wipeout of November 2010. One key element in the defeats (or preemptive surrenders) of first-term presidents seeking a second was a primary challenge within his own party—for Lyndon Johnson, Eugene McCarthy; for Jimmy Carter, Edward Kennedy; for George H.W. Bush, Patrick J. Buchanan. (This was true for Harry S. Truman as well, whose party split at the Democratic convention; he nonetheless squeaked through to victory.)
The electoral and economic conditions were ripe for such a challenge, which always comes from a party’s more ideologically doctrinaire base, but Obama never had to face one. That was surely due to the fact that his party had been devastated on Election Day 2010 due to the successful muscling-through of liberal desiderata—from a nearly $1 trillion stimulus to a United Auto Workers Union bailout (in the form of the auto bailout) to ObamaCare.
Had Obama been forced to fight a bit for the Democratic nomination, it would have cost him time and money. More important, there would have been a non-Republican politician attacking him openly on the grounds that he had either betrayed his principles or failed to help the American people. That would have softened the ground for Republican attacks later on. Thus, Obama’s advocacy of unabashedly liberal ideas and policies saved him from the need to fight an internecine battle within the Democratic Party that would have damaged his reelection efforts as surely as they damaged those of his one-term predecessors.
Once that was all settled, Obama simply distanced himself from what he had done. He did not tack to the center, as Bill Clinton did. But he didn’t celebrate his own successes either. He went small, targeted, and contentless.
And he may have seen to it that he would face a contentless rival.
Obama and his team let it be known in the spring of 2011 that they intended to raise and spend an unprecedented $1 billion—$250 million more than in 2008—without having to drop so much as a nickel on anything but the general election against the Republicans. This is probably the key to understanding why the Republican field in 2011 came down to the distressingly uncharismatic array of B-listers like Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and a couple of ludicrous outliers who thought they had nothing to lose by running. A Republican senator explained it to me at the time: “That’s one billion dollars aimed like a laser-guided munition at the reputation of a single person.”
There were more attractive, more presentable, and more (theoretically) electable possibilities—potential candidates as conversant with conservative ideas as they are with practical governing strategies and who possess the vocabulary to unite the two. But those possibilities might either have had problematic family issues or other private matters they did not want aired—or they were simply intimidated by the immensity of the challenge or by the relative paucity of their own experience on the national stage. They would not enter the race no matter how much they were touted or how eagerly major donors assured them they would raise the necessary dollars to win the nomination. The conditions were favorable for a dramatic charge at a wounded sitting president, and yet they would not go.
Thus, the $1-billion-dollar laser-guided munition, discussed early enough in 2011 to make anyone nervous, may have been the “killer app” of the entire campaign.
That left Mitt Romney and the rest of the field. Romney was going to run in any case, under any circumstances. He had nothing else to do; he had spent nearly two decades preparing himself for such a run and had tried in 2008; and as we learned from his bid, he had exactly two bad stories anyone could tell about him in the course of his 66 years on this earth (one about a kid whose hair he cut as a high-school prank, the other about putting his terrified dog in a carrier on the roof of his car). One can assume that the lives of his wife and five sons are similarly pristine, given that we found out nothing unpleasant about them.
He was certainly vulnerable when it came to his wealth and his faith. But there was nothing Romney could do about being rich. There was nothing Romney could do about being a deeply devout and powerful leader of a minority religion viewed with skepticism and suspicion by voters for whom religion is a key issue.
Doubtless Romney understood he was a flawed candidate because of them. But who among us is without flaw? And he seemed to feel that being president might be his destiny, maybe even as a matter of faith. That in itself might explain why a man with no clear vision of where he wanted to take the country or what he might want to do with it once he got it would be so driven to be its steward.
His lack of a clear vision was not only a weakness, though it surely was that; it was also a conscious tactical decision. Many of us thought at the outset that his candidacy was certain to founder on the shoals of his own health-care plan in Massachusetts, which had been a model for ObamaCare. That had been his signature accomplishment, and if one issue united the Republican Party, it was its opposition to a universal health-care mandate.
Because he could not discuss health care, he was better off being relatively vague on all aspects of policy. When policy types complained there was little substance to his campaign, he put out a 59-point plan—with few specifics, and therefore just another way of being vague. During the primaries he boiled down his 59 points to seven; by the time the general election rolled around, those seven had been boiled down to five.
None of this would have passed muster except that Romney was so much better a candidate than everyone else in the field—so much more fluid, with a superior demeanor and the disposition of a leader—that he actually seemed to elevate the lack of a substantive core to a higher level. For unlike him, every serious rival to Romney did run in some sense as a candidate of ideas. By far the most interesting was Pawlenty, a successful Republican governor in a Democratic state who had devoted himself to advocating a series of policies to help lower-middle-class Americans. But Pawlenty was like a wet match that never caught fire.
Perry, whose successful governorship in the nation’s second-largest and most prosperous state made him the most serious threat to Romney, came out with an extraordinarily radical book called Fed Up in 2010. In it he not only decried Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, but also said he was opposed to the constitutional amendment on the direct election of senators and intimated a philosophical opposition to the Federalist Papers. It is one of the more interesting books a successful politician has ever published—and would have made him unelectable had he survived undoing himself in two disastrous debate performances.
Gingrich was the candidate of far too many ideas, some good, some bad, some crazy, and all expressed with the emphatic self-confidence of someone unable to distinguish the good from the bad from the crazy. Rick Santorum ran as the race’s social-conservative conscience, whose life experience had saddled him with a deeply pessimistic view of the condition of the human soul. Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah who served as Obama’s ambassador to China, issued a series of interesting and deeply conservative policy papers, but he was supercilious and oleaginous as he sought to explain them.
Listening to these men—and the oddities who succeeded in turning a deadly serious primary season into a parody of itself—was enough to make one doubt the value of candidacies of ideas and the peculiar candidates who espoused them. As someone said, Romney got the job because he was the only one who came to the job interview in a suit.
And so Romney it became. With the results we saw on November 6.
None of this should obscure the fact that the election revealed that the Republican Party is in a deeply troubled condition that goes far beyond the merely technical. If the fact were simply that Mitt Romney was outplayed by Barack Obama in a relatively close election, Republican candidates for the Senate and House would have fared better than he. But as Ramesh Ponnuru points out: “He did better than Connie Mack in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Pete Hoekstra in Michigan, Deb Fischer in Nebraska, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and of course Todd Akin in Missouri, and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In some cases Romney did a lot better.” Of the names on this list, only Flake and Fischer won their races. The election ended with Democrats winning two new seats in the Senate and increasing their majority to 55 when the conventional wisdom at the beginning of the year was that the GOP was likely to take control of the body.
As Ponnuru says, when a party loses as definitively—though narrowly—as the GOP did in November, one must ask not what the man at the top of the ticket did wrong but what is the common element that seems to tarnish Republican candidates or, all things being equal, makes it harder for them to prevail.
One answer being bandied about is purely determinist: Demographic changes are dooming the GOP to permanent minority status. Without question, a party that can earn only 20 percent of the vote of the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States is doomed; but only eight years ago George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, so it would be foolish to presume that vote immutably Democratic. The same is even more true for young people, who simply do not have the same sets of concerns as they age.
Another and more important argument is that the Republican Party is dominated by a set of ideas and issues that are catnip to its own base but repellent to everyone else. There is much that is true in this, too, but then, the off-putting quality of raw ideology is a problem for both parties. After all, the convictions of the base of the Democratic Party can be equally off-putting even though they are often obscured from view by a compliant media, and helped account for the shellacking of 2010.
That said, Republican politicians certainly showed a horrifying propensity for speaking about delicate issues in the most repulsive ways over the past year. That was most obviously the case with the Missouri and Indiana Senate candidates, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, in their musings about abortion and rape. Those were the gifts that kept on giving this election season for Democrats, who used Akin’s and Mourdock’s appalling remarks not only to win those states but to give the impression nationwide that their views (that women had a mysterious power to prevent pregnancies from rape, but that even when that power failed, the children born from rape were a divine gift) represented the mainstream of their party.
It was the case as well with illegal immigration. It is one thing to talk about the need for border security. It is quite another to have presidential primary debates turn on questions of electrifying fences and putting up “you will be shot” signs at the border, or to advocate the punishment of poor children of illegals who are in this country through no choice of their own by effectively denying them access to state colleges. The first is inarguable; the others are simply expressions of punitive hostility that have been replicated again and again in discussions of illegal immigration.
More socially liberal Republicans want the party to steer clear of such controversial talking points and focus instead on the economy above all. But here too the GOP has found it difficult to speak in a manner that is not divisive. The moment that arguably made it impossible for Mitt Romney to win the election—even with the surge in his support that came the following month—was the revelation in September of the video in which he said he could not reach 47 percent of the electorate and had to write it off because these are people
dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them….These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect….And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Romney did something inadvertently instructive with his 47-percent comments. He showed just how divorced contentless politics is from ideas—indeed, how hostile contentless politics can be to the very ideas even it must rely on. Romney took a complicated and decades-long discussion about the changing nature of American society and the relation between the individual and the state and vulgarized it almost beyond recognition into a short-term electoral strategy. He understood what he needed to do was target voters to turn out the way the president was doing; so he told wealthy donors he was giving up on 47 percent of the American people because that 47 percent had been corrupted beyond his capacity to get them to vote for him.
It is true that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes and take more from government than they put in. But this is a many-faceted phenomenon, and the issue is not primarily or simply one of the corrupting power of government handouts. Rather, the issue is one of incentives. Just as Mitt Romney follows the rules of the tax code to lower his own burden to the lowest legal level—through incentives to do so provided by the tax code—so do all other Americans. If their tax burden is lowered to zero, they pay no taxes. That is simple common sense. It is not a snare, not a seduction, not a corruption. It may have grave long-term consequences for the country, but that is a policymaking crisis, not a black stain on the American character.
For decades, conservative thinkers have been making powerful and effective arguments in relation to domestic policy about how to reduce perverse incentives in every aspect of American life. Most of them—all of them, really—are about how to improve the material and spiritual condition of the poor and lower middle class. That is what makes the conservative/Republican coalition more than simply the faction of the tax cut, the faction of deregulation, or the faction that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.
The contentlessness of the Romney campaign was a vacuity of the center-right—an effort to reach out to that 53 percent by being as airy as possible. The most telling line in Romney’s largely self-written convention speech was “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”
Yes, but how? Only a fanatic would think Barack Obama wouldn’t want to “help you and your family.” Romney’s answer to this was “jobs,” presumably because the word “jobs” tests well in focus groups. But for the American middle class, the woes of the past few years and the worries about the future are more complicated than that.
The vast majority of those in the American middle class haven’t lost their jobs and probably don’t expect to lose them. Their economic concerns revolve around being and feeling poorer than they were and felt in 2007, being or feeling trapped in a house worth less than it was, and being or feeling trapped in a job that pays less than they thought it would by now—and in all these cases, prospects are for extraordinarily modest improvement at best.
To such people Romney had nothing to say; he stuck instead to those generalities about America being a nation of entrepreneurship that celebrates success and rewards hard work and dreaming. That’s all well and good, but many people work hard without dreaming; and it is a violation of the central conservative idea of the dignity of the individual to confuse the idea of “success” in life with purely financial success as a result of risk-taking.
Thus did the flight from content create a fatal problem for Romney. He may have thought his lack of specificity would lend him more appeal, but in the end, it made him less appealing because he offered nothing but words. The exit-poll question he lost most definitively to Obama was about which of them “cares about the problems of people like me.” Obama won it by a staggering 81–17. There was some moaning in conservative circles that this indicated a dreadful decline for America, its final Oprah-ization. That is a terrible misunderstanding. Of course politicians should “care about the problems of people like me.” The “problems of people like me” are the root of all policy. Otherwise being a politician is nothing but regulation and management.
You cannot beat something with nothing. Obama had a record that was less than nothing but a machine and an approach to victory that were more than enough to add up to something. Romney, in the end, had nothing but Obama’s nothing.
Seen in this light, the notion that the right is dying is ludicrous. Romney called himself “severely conservative,” and that may be true of him personally, but it certainly was never true of him politically. Indeed, it was only when he finally and at long last ran as himself—the confident and well-spoken serious person with leadership skills—that he began making the sale to the American people. Then, when his challenge was to put meat on those bones in the second and third debates, he could not do so. When he needed to convince people not only that he had it in him to be presidential but that he had distinct ideas of what he would do once he became president, he failed. Conservatism could have saved him. He did not understand it, and he rejected it.
How can Romney’s loss invalidate the right when he was not a candidate of the right? It can, perhaps, as a matter of image, but it cannot as a matter of fact.
So though conservatism stands while Romneyism disappears, the question is what kind of conservatism remains. American conservatism has four aspects, really. One is its intellectual aspect, as expressed in the pages of this magazine, the Weekly Standard, National Review, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, National Affairs, the New Criterion, First Things, and (to some extent) Reason and the American Conservative, and in the work of writers and academics who labor at think tanks and universities and help fill those pages and publish book-length works of scholarship.
The second is its activist aspect, as expressed through the work of large organizations and small platoons who push conservative ideas into the political sphere.
The third is the media aspect, expressed through talk radio and the Fox News Channel primarily but also through hundreds of websites, which take elements of the intellectual and elements of the activist and blend them into a populist stew that transmits them to a wider audience.
And the fourth is the political aspect, which stands on the shoulders of the other three, and is expressed now almost exclusively through the Republican Party.
Of all of these, by far the least healthy is the Republican Party. Its illness is not at the root of conservatism. Conservatism has the means and the arguments and the vision to discuss the future of America and the world in terms that speak to the needs of everyday Americans.
The danger now is the impulse in every one of the other three aspects to use the failure of 2012 as a means of fighting internecine battles and purifying the campgrounds rather than attracting others. One gets the sense, reading certain websites and articles run by self-appointed grassroots leaders, that they believe the right is so capacious and powerful that it can and should strengthen itself through the process of excommunication.
Let someone say that perhaps taxes on millionaires can and should be raised if other worthy conservative goals can be fulfilled; let someone argue that conservative principles may be fulfilled by the acceptance of gay marriage; let someone speak of the need to discuss abortion in terms of the miracles visible to all on ultrasounds rather than the invisible and unseen ensoulment of the fetus; and some voices cry heresy.
The limitation of opinion and analysis is not only a luxury the right cannot afford; it is a sign of a distinct lack of self-confidence on the part of those who seek it that their ideas can survive the necessary stress tests.
The United States will now undergo a four-year stress test of American liberalism, as Obama will get his tax hike and ObamaCare will be implemented. Those who think Obama cared about people like them will now experience the full extent of his caring. Conservatism will explain to them what is happening as it happens, and in the process, reveal how there is another, better, more effective, and more compassionate way forward.