The Republicans have only won the popular vote since Ronald Reagan’s presidency on two occasions: 1988 and 2004. In both instances, even the patrician Bushes were able to paint their liberal opponents as out-of-touch Massachusetts magnificoes. Lee Atwater turned Michael Dukakis, the helmeted tank driver, into a bumbling Harvard Square naïf. Karl Rove reminded the country that John Kerry, the wind surfer, was a spandex-wearing, wetsuit-outfitted yuppie who lived in several of his rich wife’s mansions, as he jetted around in her plane and sailed on her boat.
Otherwise, it was the Republicans who always ended up reduced to plutocratic grandees. Since 1960, and with the exception of Barack Obama, the Democrats always lost when they ran northern liberals — George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and John Kerry — so great is the American distrust of both old money aristocrats and Northern tsk-tsk scolds. Apparently southern accents — LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore — were necessary fides to win the popular vote, a sort of implicit reminder to voters that liberal Democrats could be just folks rather social engineers and redistributionists. Wealth apparently is not the key as much as an impression of familiarity with the working classes. Liberals laughed at Reagan riding horses, chopping wood, and chainsawing on his ranch, but voters liked what they saw. Neither party apparently can nominate a Massachusetts governor or senator and expect to win. Mitt Romney is a good man who would have made a very good president, but by June he was no longer a good Mitt Romney. Instead, millions of dollars in hit ads and free media assaults reduced him to a hideous caricature of a greedy, heartless Scrooge.
2. Barack Obama Was a Special Case
Barack Obama broke the 50-year rule of a successful northern liberal failing to win the presidency. It was not just that Barack Obama was the first African-American president, but rather that he was young, charismatic, half-African-American (on that characteristic, see Harry Reid and Joe Biden circa 2008), with an exotic multicultural name and a chameleon ability to be (and speak) all things to all people — a combination that enthralled white liberals and minorities alike. A new black candidate with a Jesse Jackson accent named Tyrone Wilson would not have won with the identical platform and teleprompted eloquence. I don’t think even a Cory Booker or Deval Patrick would have a chance.
Liberals wanted to vote for someone they could live next door to, chat about the Ivy League with, play golf with, and feel, well, very liberal about — and thereby never have to put their kids in a public integrated school, go into the ghetto or barrio, or live next to a household on public assistance — and again yet still feel very liberal about their tony apartheid. Barack Obama offered them that deal — and the added attraction of white liberals being complimented abroad when they jetted to Venice, Munich, or London as being international, cosmopolitan, and European if you will. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or any other Democrat will have no such special appeal in 2016. In terms of just getting elected (rather than governing), Obama did for the left what Reagan did for the right — and both are hard to follow. The truth is that in both the House of Representatives and statehouses the Republicans have never been stronger.
3. Racial Preemption Works
For most of 2012 the media created a preemptive charge that Republicans were racists, as everything from mentioning golf or the word “Chicago” was declared prejudicial. Romney was supposedly the new Andrew Johnson who would wreck civil rights in the way the latter undermined Reconstruction. The point was not that Democrats believed any of this racialism, but that it prepped the campaign battlefield to prevent Romney, as it had prevented McCain, from running the sort of bare-knuckles campaigns that Ronald Reagan had run against Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush had run against Michael Dukakis, and George W. Bush had run against John Kerry. The fact that “Racist! Racist!” is now a broken record — Eric Holder gets into hot water over his knowledge of Fast and Furious and suddenly his auditors are racists; Susan Rice misleads the country and suddenly her critics are racists and sexists — does not mean that it does not work in deterring critics. A white liberal can all but destroy Condoleezza Rice or Alberto Gonzalez and feel very liberal, but a peep about Barack Obama or Susan Rice from a white male is akin to a KKK slur. The next Republican candidate must be ready to reply to all sorts of false charges and to make them rebound on the accusers. When the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who gave the 2008 inaugural benediction, right before the election announces in a public speech that white people belong in Hell — and no one dares challenge him (why not just a “Mr. President, do you object to Rev. Lowery’s racist remarks?”) — these preemptory charges of racism have proved effective. Tribal politics must be questioned not encouraged: the black vote, the Latino vote, the Asian vote — all this leads to the Balkans or Rwanda. Better to play the long-term strategy, deplore racial tribalization, and remind the country at large that we simply have too many disparate groups with too many conflicting agendas and too many claims against a shrinking majority to continue the present spoils system.
4. Swing State Obsessions Don’t Always Work
It made sense that Romney concentrated on Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and mostly on perceived swing voters. He campaigned and spent money incessantly in the proverbially right places. But Romney, for logical reasons, for the most part avoided a big-named campus, a barrio, or a blue-state event where he might have made the pitch that free market economics works better for the poor and minorities than job-killing statism, at least in the long run. Romney’s rare NAACP address was impressive — earning not a single black vote, but perhaps winning over some independents. Reagan did best when he waded in and confronted those who did not like him.
5. The Latino Voter Obsession
It is true that the Latino vote — at over 70% for Obama — did not cost Romney the election, given its small share of the electorate (e.g. 10%); instead, its loss left the Republicans with a smaller margin of error. Latinos, to the extent Oaxacans and Cuban grandees are to be lumped together, did not vote against Romney because he opposed amnesties, at least not entirely. Elite Republican strategists are, to be candid, unhinged when they talk of support for the Dream Act winning Latino voters (ask the Reagan people after the Simpson-Mazzoli Act). “Family values” where I live means a sort of patron/client La Familia relationship in which the government becomes the patron and we are the clients who vote for it in exchange for state health care, food, housing, education, and legal help — all means of addressing the injustice that “they” (rich people) have done to those arriving from Mexico. If anyone thinks the divorce, illegitimacy, or crime rates are lower here in Selma or Fresno and tens of thousands of Latino Catholics are just waiting for a nice word to vote for Rick Santorum, they need to have their heads examined. If anyone thinks Latinos in California just want the Dream Act and then, presto, will favor closed borders and a merit-based, ethnically blind system in which education, capital, and skills adjudicate who is let in the legal immigration line, they need doubly to have their heads examined. Study the demography of the recently passed Proposition 30 in California.
The only way Republicans can appeal to Latinos is with what I would call the Italian strategy — close the border, stop illegal immigration, and allow the melting pot and upward mobility to fracture “Hispanics” along class lines, in the manner that no right-wing guy named Mazelli votes for Andrew Cuomo and no left-winger named Petrucci votes for Rudy Giuliani — and neither one speaks Italian, has a kid in the Italian Studies Program on an affirmative action scholarship, or knows anyone who boos the U.S. soccer team at an Italy-America match.
6. The Mainstream Media Still Rules
Without Limbaugh, Hannity, Fox News, the Drudge Report, the conservative blogs, and the conservative dailies and magazine, the conservative cause would be lost. But with that said, do not quite believe the mainstream media is dead because the New York Times or Washington Post is nearly insolvent or the print version of Newsweek will shortly be defunct. The fact is that the liberal press is insidious. The worst network news anchors still have larger ratings on most nights than does The O’Reilly Factor. NPR, with 900 stations, draws more listeners than most right-wing talk hosts. It does not matter much that no one watches MSNBC if they watch NBC. It matters nothing that Air America went broke without an audience. When you tally together the cultural influence of the NY Times, Washington Post, NPR, PBS, CBS, ABC, and NBC, and then consider the slant of a USA Today or People magazine, it all adds up. Worse perhaps are the biases of AP, Reuters, Bloomberg News, Google, Yahoo, and the other wire services that feed supposedly neutrally reported news to local affiliates that ensure their prejudices are aired as disinterested information. Don’t forget the influence of the hard-left British and European presses. Conservatives are gradually catching up, but for the foreseeable future they have a real problem: slanted liberal news is still passed off as Walter-Cronkite mainstream apolitical news, and conservative alternatives are dismissed as shrill partisanship — and lots of clueless Americans believe that. When an author appears on Fox, he is dismissed as rank book plugger; when he goes on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, he is a literary figure. That the mainstream media was shamelessly partisan meant a 3-4% edge for Obama that was hard to erase.
7. Attack Ads
The winning Democratic ground game this year, as was true for the Republicans in 2004, was a mixture of a get-out-the-vote ground game and negative advertising. We rarely saw Romney ads hitting Obama as racially divisive, as a jet-setter, as a flip-flopper, or as squandering opportunities to find new gas and oil. I don’t think that magnanimity won any accolades from the press. In truth, Romney relied on mostly upbeat TV ads and some mildly negative commercials — while Obama organized Americans by tribe, got out the vote on Election Day, and sold America on the lie that Romney was a near felon capitalist outsourcer and veritable killer of the uninsured who destroyed jobs to pocket money for his elevator — all as Barack Obama kept preaching about “civility” and “the tired old Washington politics.” Somehow the Republicans have to break the lose/lose label of being dubbed negative when they are soft, while liberals are declared civil when downright nasty.
8. Stuff Happens
John McCain was four points up in mid-September when the Freddie and Fannie meltdown hit; a week later he was four points down. The media took the news of a financial collapse, brought on by government warping of the subprime loan market, hand in glove with Wall Street greed, and turned it into George Bush’s Republican plot to enrich old white rich guys — as if a Barney Frank or Chris Dodd had never hammered for overpriced government guarantees for the unqualified. Romney in some polls was five points up when Hurricane Sandy hit. A week later, after nightly shots of bomber-jacket Obama, D-Day-style on the front-line beaches, arm in arm with Chris Christie, the polls had the candidate dead even, and Romney’s surge was ancient history. Katrina doomed George Bush’s second term, even though a good argument could be made that the incompetents in Louisiana turned a disaster into an abject catastrophe in a way Mississippi state and local officials did not. The point? Republicans better have contingency plans, media strategies — and bigger leads — going into Election Day, since even high tides will be viewed as tsunamis for conservative challengers, and for liberal incumbents tsunamis will be mere high tides.
9. Beware the Cocoon
If one read the Drudge Report, looked at Rasmussen polls, listened to O’Reilly and Hannity on Fox News, and hit the radio talk shows, then it was natural to think that Romney would win with 300 electoral votes. But we all must realize that the country, while center-right, is subjected to a left-center daily barrage. Next time, we must channel surf NBC and CBS, check on the Huffington Post, follow the left-wing polls, and study Reuters to see what the opposition is doing, planning, and thinking — and react accordingly. The right-wing media is serving as an alternative to the bias of the mainstream news, but also as a sort of religious outlet where the depressed and pessimistic can find some shred of hope in a bleak world — understandable but not always empirical. I thought Romney might win by one point given the RCP poll averages, but I wanted to believe, but just could not, what Dick Morris preached in the evenings. We think the first-time-sex-is-like-voting-for-Obama ad stupid; and the black garbage collector’s whine that Romney did not come out for coffee and chat on each delivery silly. Most voters, however, apparently found them “compelling.” Take in a Castor Oil’s dose of Chris Matthews or Andrea Mitchell for 30 seconds to learn why.
10. There is a 47%
Last night I went late into the local drug store. The guy ahead of me carefully separated his groceries: in one small pile was baby formula and milk that he paid with a California food card; in the other pile was a huge heap of regular Mountain Dew, three snack packs of Snickers, expensive Beef Jerky packs, and jumbo bags of M&M’s. He held up the line for 10 minutes while he went through the two piles and checked out twice. But he did apologize for the delay. I offered to pay cash for his milk and formula to expedite his cash purchase of 20,000 calories. I don’t think he voted for Mitt Romney.
Nor did the other guy at the Selma Save Mart the day before who got into a new Honda Accord (6-cylinder, no less) after buying 2 cartloads of subsidized food. It may be callous and rude to say that lots more Americans look to government after 2008, but it happens to be true. What Romney said before and after the election may have seemed insensitive and in some details inexact, but his basic drift was correct. What to do? The Republicans should make deals on spending cuts. Perhaps they could daily offer $5 billion in cuts from their constituents for every $5 billion they want from the Obama gravy train. Start with agricultural crop subsidies and ethanol supports, and go down the sweetheart loans and investment breaks for big banks, in exchange for paring down food stamps, welfare, and green subsidies, until we are back to 2006 levels of spending.
A final take on the election: Mitt Romney was a glittering Sir Galahad who, given his impressive horse, armor, and lance, along with his decency and piety, assumed that he could win a joust in a fair charge against the other team’s knight. Instead he waded into a sudden fray where he was swarmed, mobbed, cut off, pulled off his magnificent steed, had his matchless armor yanked away by a mob of foot soldiers, and then, once stripped clean, was clubbed and maced beyond recognition.