Republicans have started a conversation on why they lost the election and on what they have to do to win the next one.
As a recent convert to the party, I have a few thoughts on that.
1. It wasn’t the economy, stupid.
Everyone said the election would be fought out over the economy. But the truth is the votes that killed Romney were driven by culture war issues — abortion and immigration especially, but others as well. (More about this later.)
2. It was the candidate.
Mitt Romney was not the ogre that the Obama campaign tried to make him out to be, but he was still a fatally flawed candidate.
The flaw? Take your pick: He was a chameleon, a shape-shifter, an artful dodger, an Etch-a-Sketch with legs, or, to paraphrase Johnny Cash, he was the one on the left who was on the right Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and the one on the right who was on the left Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
It wasn’t that Romney was for ObamaCare before he was against it. It was that he invented ObamaCare before he was against it — and couldn’t offer a plausible reason for the shift other than wanting to win the Republican nomination.
Mitt didn’t seem to notice that people noticed. He kept asking them to trust him, apparently blissfully unaware that the shape-shifting had defined him as untrustworthy.
Samuel Goldwin supposedly said, “Sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Romney had some stupid gaffes, and the Romney campaign made its share of strategic and tactical mistakes, but I tend to attach less importance to these in explaining his loss. Most political campaigns are pretty chaotic affairs shot through with missteps and pratfalls. Except in very close elections, which this one wasn’t, they don’t amount to much.
To be sure, the gaffes and blunders hurt Romney, but the fatal flaw was that all the shape-shifting defined him as untrustworthy and left people wondering if some part of the guy’s character was missing — and that was the deal breaker.
Could he have done something about it, given his political history? Sure. If you’re going to repudiate your political past, start with three words: “I was wrong.” Then tell people how and why you were wrong, and what you would do differently now that you know better.
3. It was the enemies, stupid.
In politics, friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.
A big reason for Romney’s loss, and the biggest problem the Republican Party will face going forward, is that it has accumulated too many enemies over the last few decades.
Item: The party’s absolutist stands on immigration have alienated a lot of Hispanics. Romney got only about 30 percent of the Hispanic vote. Before the issue came up, the GOP was gaining Hispanic voters. In 2004, Bush got about 45 percent of it. The difference represents several million voters.
Item: The party’s strong hostility to gay marriage (and gay rights generally) has driven most gays out of the Republican Party, not that there were many there to begin with. Still, the Gallup Organization recently concluded (based on about 100,000 interviews) that about 3.4 percent of the country’s adult population is gay. That works out to about 7 million voting-age Americans, most of whom won’t be voting Republican any time soon.
Item: The party’s absolutist opposition to abortion has clearly cost it the support of a large proportion of women, and single women in particular, as evidenced by the fact that this year’s balloting produced the largest gender gap ever measured in a presidential election. That also represents several million votes.
Item: Thanks to Richard Nixon and Nancy Reagan, the Republican Party pretty much owns the war on drugs. In the past, it has been assumed that this has not cost the GOP many voters, if for no other reason than that the Democrats have always meekly gone along with drug prohibition and offered no alternative to it. Think again. More than 10 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana in the last 40 years. Chances are those of them that vote aren’t exactly beating down the doors of the party of “Just say no.”
And so on.
A couple million votes here, a couple million votes there, it adds up.
Notice that all these examples represent cases of Republicans losing voters and making enemies by virtue of wanting to use government to push people around.
The damage this does goes beyond making enemies. It makes a mockery of the Republican claim to be the party of limited government, a claim that is crucial to how the GOP defines itself.
The most important thing Republicans can do if they want to win elections going forward? Easy. Quit making enemies gratuitously. Show some tolerance.