Barack Obama’s victory vindicates the “base” strategy of the Democrats. Obama never moved to the center, even as he cast his centrist opponent as an extremist. Obama didn’t worry too much about winning conservative-leaning independents; he just made sure liberal Democrats got to the polls.
Democrats win elections by rejecting the “big tent” advice that they typically give to Republicans. While they mau-mau Republicans into “moving to the middle,” they stand immobile on the left, maintaining fierce ideological purity and deploying wedge issues without apology. This unites their side and divides the opposition, producing contests of liberal conviction and character assassination versus GOP ambiguity and polite disagreement. They nominate candidates who accept without reservation the Democratic Party platform; Republicans struggle to find candidates willing to uphold theirs. Democrats call Republicans evil; Republicans call Democrats merely mistaken. And yet, haplessly, the Republicans are the ones who find themselves answering charges of extremism from the media.
By defining the left as the “center” and liberalism as the arbiter of reasonableness, the Democrats can play this game endlessly against the Republicans. Using this same framework, the chattering class is now happily dispensing advice to the defeated GOP. The upshot of the advice is: Just surrender and embrace liberalism.
On MSNBC, Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s former campaign manager, counsels the GOP to move leftward. Never mind that it did. Romney’s record was arguably more liberal than McCain’s, and yet it appears that Romney got even fewer votes than the Arizona senator. Should the GOP have run a candidate to the left of Obama? Would that have sealed victory? If American politics is now just a bidding war for liberals, and willy-nilly winning is its supreme purpose, why doesn’t the GOP just disband? It could join the Democrats and call for the creation of a one-party state. That would ensure the Big Tenters could win every time.
Chuck Todd, also of MSNBC, says the GOP must engage in “soul searching.” What he really means is that it needs to become more soulless. Since the principles of the Constitution and the Ten Commandments don’t poll well enough in modern America, the GOP should just ditch them. That’s the soulfulness MSNBC has in mind.
When the Democrats lose, they blame defeat on communication, not content. Big Tenters tend to blame defeat on content, not communication. If only the Republican Party had run a more progressive candidate, victory would have been assured, they suggest. But this ignores that Romney embodied much of the political correctness they envision in an ideal candidate: he supported gay adoption, said he would not restore “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” carefully avoided any mention of Obama’s gay marriage stance, generally skirted abortion and other social issues, stood by Romneycare, and touted his bipartisan record as a governor in a liberal state. What more did they want? It is comic to hear them fault Republicans for not “reaching out to Hispanics” (with their hearty, socially conservative values, says Karl Rove) while simultaneously demanding that Republicans drum social conservatives out of the party and compete more aggressively for urban secularists.
George W. Bush won Ohio in 2004 on the gay marriage issue; Romney lost Ohio without having mentioned gay marriage once. So much for the Big Tent’s insistence on “fiscal conservatism only” as a fool-proof formula for victory.
Why doesn’t the GOP try out the novel idea of running a candidate who believes in the stated Republican platform as passionately as the Dems believe in theirs? Such a candidate couldn’t do much worse than McCain and Romney. By running moderates, the GOP ends up fighting with one arm tied behind its back. Romney ran a more impressive campaign than McCain, but he still ended up conceding a lot of ground to Obama. In two campaigns in a row, Obama’s social radicalism has passed without comment from the GOP nominee. Even with the gay marriage victories in Maryland and elsewhere, Obama could have paid a price for his unprecedented stance. But he paid none, because Romney refused to engage him on social issues.
It is also strange that two GOP nominees in a row have insisted on the goodness of Obama while he has trashed Republicans as corrupt and evil. The “Obama is a good man, but a poor president” formula didn’t work. The Obama campaign spent months calling Romney a bad person. Biden said that he lacked compassion. All the while Romney simply described them as well-meaning but incompetent.
Establishment Republican pundits predicted a victory for Romney. Proven wrong, they now present themselves again as experts on the electorate, urging the party to jettison principle in pursuit of votes. They would do better to study the Democrats, who care far more about consolidating their base than constructing a wobbly big tent.