I am a naturally optimistic fellow, not easily depressed. But on election night, despite a supply of cheap champagne and leftover Halloween candy to boost my spirits, I went to bed thoroughly demoralized and in the dumps. The piece by Robert Stacy McCain that appeared on this site the next morning (“Doomed Beyond all Hope of Redemption”) pretty much summed up my feelings.
But Time, the Great Healer, soon started to have its salubrious effect on my psyche, and I was able to wade through some post-mortem analyses without getting physically ill, and eventually came to the conclusion that though, yes, the Republican Party (the only political party through which conservatives wield policy making influence) has many problems, it is not the complete wreck that some assume, and therefore the nation is not, necessarily, doomed.
Like many conservatives, I had bought into the very reasonable narrative that lower enthusiasm on the Democratic side for Obama, combined with much higher enthusiasm for Romney among Republicans than for John McCain in 2008, would mean the 2012 electorate would be much more evenly split among Republicans and Democrats versus 2008, and Romney’s strength with independents would likely push him over the top. That didn’t happen. The “enthusiasm gap” didn’t manifest itself and though Romney improved greatly upon McCain’s performance with independents, Democratic turnout beat Republican turnout by about as much as it did in 2008. In addition to losing the presidential race, Republicans, once hopeful of capturing the senate in a target rich environment of vulnerable Democratic seats, actually appear to have managed a net loss of two seats.
Republican failures in Senate races in 2012 and 2010 highlight the most serious internal problem for which the Republican Party needs to find an answer. In 2010, so-called “Tea Party” conservatives pushed weak Senate candidates in the contests against a particularly vulnerable Harry Reid in Nevada, and in favor of the one Republican candidate who could have (and would have) won in an open seat in Delaware, long-time congressman Mike Castle. Castle, however, was deemed too “moderate” so the Tea Party’s nod, and ultimately the nomination went to Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell, like the Tea Party’s Nevada selection, Sharron Angle, was an unpolished (putting it kindly) candidate whose only selling point was an unflinching conservative worldview. Arguments about electability were swept aside, and it didn’t matter that O’Donnell and Angle could easily (and I mean easily) be painted as kooks. As a result, the Republican Party fumbled away two easy pick-ups, with the Tea Party faithful arguing that it was better to lose elections to liberal Democrats than to elect moderate “RINO’s”, or even “establishment” conservatives. This mistake was repeated again in 2012 with Todd Aiken in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Again, two more sure-win Senate seats given away by ill-advised candidate selection.
Did Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, with their imbecilic comments on rape (which seemed to get more press attention than Benghazi), ultimately cost Mitt Romney the presidential election? Probably not, but they did further tarnish the Republican “brand” playing into the hands of the Democratic propaganda machine that the Republican Party is hostile to women, and full of ignorant, right-wing religious zealots. To be a majority national party you have to build coalitions, like Ronald Reagan did so well in the 1980’s. By definition, everyone in the coalition will not be in agreement on every issue. But conservatives when backing primary candidates need to realize that being able to win the general election has to be an important consideration. Someone who is less than a 100% conservative, but who conservatives could bring into coalitions on most important issues, is not a bad alternative to a liberal Democrat who will always or almost always be opposed to conservative positions. The Republican Party, to be a national majority party, needs the likes of a Mike Castle in Delaware or a Richard Lugar, and to cast them aside as candidates in contested elections for the likes of Christine O’Donnell and Richard Mourdock is insanity. In order repair the damage of eight years of an Obama presidency conservatives are going to need to build large governing coalitions greater than their own numbers.
Along those lines, there are those that are blaming the 2012 calamity on the fact that Mitt Romney wasn’t conservative enough and did not provide a stark enough contrast with Barrack Obama. But the reality is that the contrast was pretty stark. Like most every politician out there (including Barrack Obama), Mitt Romney had to deal with past position flip-flops and some of his campaign team’s strategic decisions can be second guessed, but in what really mattered in this election, he laid out a clear vision of support for free-enterprise, low taxes, and reduction of over-bearing government regulation that was clearly and fundamentally different from President Obama’s policies of stimulus spending, auto bailouts, increased regulation, and increased taxes on the “rich.” Romney’s problem was that he was never able to erase away fully the caricature of himself engrained in the minds of many voters through early and ubiquitous Obama ads that he was a crass, unfeeling, out of touch, rich guy. It didn’t help that that caricature was also pushed by many of Romney’s opponents in the Republican primary. In the end, though voters in exit polls expressed agreement with the core Republican value of limited government, they also thought that Obama would do a much better job looking out for the interests of the “middle class.” In the end, the bigger philosophical agreement was no match for the smaller more personal concern. And that is my reason for hope. Even with a strong Democrat turnout, the basic philosophy that is the core common bond of Republicans resonated with a majority of the electorate.
Yes, the Republican Party has to stop “eating its own” with purges of perfectly electable (if not perfectly conservative) candidates. Yes, the Republican Party has to work harder at selling itself to women, Hispanics, and other minority groups. But Republicans don’t need to (and should not) alter their core beliefs. Romney’s defeat at the hands of an apparently vulnerable incumbent has less to do with giant faults within the Republican Party than it does with the particular circumstances of this election. The bottom line is that it is very difficult to pivot out of a highly competitive primary and into a general election and defeat a well-funded incumbent with a huge, in-place, campaign machine. That’s just political reality. And you can bet that just as it looks bleak for Republicans after this bitter defeat, it looked just as bad for Democrats after 2004 and 1988, and for Republicans after Clinton’s reelection in 1996. The electorate is fickle, and both parties tend to fritter away quickly what looks like national dominance. It will be even more so with Democrats this time around with a lame duck president with an uninspiring first term record that likely will not be improved upon in his second term.
So Republicans should not get too carried away with recriminations. To borrow some sports advice, what Republicans need to do is step back, regroup, and focus on fundamentals. In this case, that means focusing on expanding coalitions, selecting the best suited candidates, and winning elections.