For months, conservatives have been likening the conditions of the 2012 presidential race to that which saw the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Spectator's own Jeffrey Lord proclaimed that President Obama could be beaten handily “because the past four years really have been Jimmy Carter's second term.”
Victor Davis Hanson of National Review Online put it this way:
What does 1980 tell us about 2012? Barack Obama, like Carter, can run neither on his dismal four-year stewardship of the economy nor on his collapsing Middle East policy.
Hanson went on to write:
The winner probably won't be decided by old video clips, gaffes, or even campaign money, but by turnout and the October debates -- depending on whether incumbent Obama comes across as a petulant Carter and challenger Romney appears an upbeat Reagan. As in 1980, voters want a better president -- but they first have to be assured he's on the ballot.
Well, Obama did come across as petulant in the debates while Romney was upbeat. And yet it wasn't enough. At the end of the day, despite Obama's dismal economic record and an ineffectual Middle East policy, his well-oiled organization turned out his vote and Romney could not. Romney could not break through in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan nor could he put Ohio and Florida back in the Republican column.
And yet Obama didn't win on turnout alone. He won because America has changed. We're not in 1980 anymore.
We are a long, long way from a time in which we lived in a 13 channel universe where digital watches, VHS machines, Sony walkmans and microwaves were cutting edge technology with cell phones, CDs and 24-hour ATMs still yet to be invented. There is a whole generation of Americans who cannot fathom life before the Internet.
In that 13 channel universe, Reagan rose to the occasion in his lone debate with President Carter one week before the election. While Romney rose to the occasion the first time he shared the same stage with President Obama, it was a full month before the election. Obama had two more shots to redeem himself and more than made up for his lackluster performance in the first debate. And then along came Sandy which gave Obama an opportunity to look presidential in a way he wasn't when it came to Benghazi.
When all the votes were counted, Romney's performance in the first debate was but a footnote in the Twitter-verse. Romney simply peaked too soon. He wounded Obama but didn't knock him out when he had the chance. In fact, it could be argued Romney let Obama back into the fight. It was a classic case of Romney winning the battle but losing the war.
At the dawn of the '80s, a critical mass of the American population knew what life was like in the Great Depression and WWII, understood the evils of Soviet communism and did not take kindly to American diplomats being held hostage. But when we have an education establishment that is skeptical of the use of American power and weans high school students on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, should it come as a surprise that many shrug when an American ambassador is murdered? Still, Romney had not one but two chances to expose the folly of the Obama Administration's insistence the attacks in Benghazi were a result of a YouTube video, not a terrorist attack and twice he failed to do so.
In 1980, Americans would not tolerate rising unemployment. In 2012, not only is high unemployment accepted as a fact of life but receiving food stamps is encouraged. There was also no concept of gay marriage in 1980. In 2012, Obama endorsed gay marriage (albeit sooner than he wanted to on account of the loose lips of Joe Biden). Nor was it conceivable in 1980 that a sitting Commander-in-Chief's re-election campaign could have put out a commercial featuring a woman likening support for the President to the loss of her virginity. Thirty-two years ago, being wealthy and successful was considered something to aspire to and be proud of. Today, it is a source of bitterness, envy, resentment and, in some quarters, the very epitome of evil.
In the final analysis, it must also be remembered that a significant segment of the electorate was emotionally vested in Barack Obama in a way it never was with Carter -- and I'm not just talking about the mainstream media. Obama received a near unanimous vote from African-Americans and a substantial majority of Hispanics as well as people under 30 (especially women). That doesn't necessarily mean we've entered the permanent Democratic majority which Ruy Teixeira and John Judis wrote of a decade ago. It is certainly possible that America could again elect a conservative Republican President. But conservatives must recognize that the American electorate has changed and that 1980 has come and gone, never to return.