Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thoughts on Tuesday’s Election

For Republicans, this election should have been about the economy.  In a normal year it would have been awfully difficult for any President, or any incumbent, to get re-elected in this economy.  After four years, it should have been nearly impossible to shift blame.  But the fact that none of this happened says something fundamental about the GOP in 2012.

Tuesday was not about the economy.  It was not even about whether Pres. Obama’s healthcare law was an overreach by the government and his party. 

Tuesday’s election was about George Wallace. Yes, the Governor’s part of history now, passing away in 1998 (and to be fair, he did express remorse at the end), but the bitter, resentful, angry, self-righteous, anti-immigrant legacy he left to today’s GOP has now consumed the party.  On Tuesday, simple math and the “better angels” of America’s nature evoked by Lincoln, combined with the dynamic character of America’s population, finally caught up with the Republicans.

Here’s the math:  In a country where the percentage of minority voters is now 28% - and rising – the GOPs 40+ year strategy of appealing to white voters, and more specifically white males, has now run its course.  Gov. Romney won 59% of white voters, who made up 72% of the electorate.  But he lost African-Americans 93-7(!) (13% of the electorate); Hispanics 71-29 (10%, and surging) and Asians 73-27 (3%).  These Americans (and other immigrants) hear what is being said about them, either directly or in code.  Naturally, they are voting against it.

In 2008, following John McCain’s defeat, I wrote this – “Twenty years ago, when Jesse Jackson was winning Democratic presidential primaries, I used to wonder if a Democrat could say what had to be said to win the nomination and still win in November. Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis confirmed that the answer was "No.”

The GOP is now in the same ditch, far from the electable mainstream and right where the Democrats were before Bill Clinton pulled them out.     

Another interesting facet of the current state of the GOP is the party’s indifferent relationship with facts. Whether it’s an insistence that tax cuts reduce deficits, Gov. Romney’s misleading (at best) ad about Jeep moving jobs to China, the attacks on Nate Silver’s use of statistical models to assess polling data or Karl Rove’s meltdown about his home network Fox News bowing to scientific laws of probability and calling Ohio for Obama Tuesday night (and here), the party seems to have adopted Nietzche’s philosophy that “There are no facts, only interpretations."   This outlook will only reinforce an existing tendency towards unfounded certainty, making it even easier to blame the voters.  This, in turn, will make the transition to something new and electable even harder.

All of these troublesome traits find their focus on the problem of the so-called “Tea Party”, which will be a vexing one for the GOP to solve.  They are a reliable enthusiastic base, but they are not really serious about problem-solving, and their allegiance comes at a very high cost.  They forced Sen. McCain (see, Sarah Palin) then Gov. Romney far to the right to win the nomination.  For both, there was no coming back to electability.

The Tea Party has also cost the GOP four U.S. Senate seats.  In 2010 it was Nevada and Delaware (“I am not a witch”).  In 2012, it was Indiana and Missouri, where two fringe candidates made comments about rape that cost the party seats they should have won.  Forfeiting four winnable Senate seats is a high price to pay to secure a base that is never, ever satisfied.

This is not to say that America is not facing serious problems.  While the Obama years have seen a significant reduction in the rate at which spending has increased, we continue to accumulate debt at an unsustainable rate.  Further, we have made commitments to entitlement spending that simply can’t be met.  In Rhode Island, our state’s economic performance speaks for itself. 

Once, the Republicans had an answer:  Ronald Reagan.  But Pres. Obama was right when he observed that Reagan could never win today’s GOP nomination.  The cheerful, optimistic, neighborly, “give the other guy a hand up and the benefit of the doubt if he genuinely needs it”, pragmatic world-view that personified the Gipper has been swallowed by something much darker.

People are open to alternatives in 2012, largely because they are uneasy, some even frightened.  Things have changed so much from our parents’ day that bedrock ideas – like the notion that hard work and loyalty would bring security and upward mobility – are now called into question.

This uncertainty, and our self-evident, self-created problems make people open to change.  But they’re reluctant to give the reins to strangers who make them vaguely uneasy –a little too rigid, a little too self-certain, a little angry and maybe even a little mean.  Given the choice presented on Tuesday, it’s not surprising that many voters decided to overlook the familiar flaws of the status quo, and stick with what they know.  That uneasiness, and the resulting outcome, was felt here in Rhode Island, too.

If they want to win again, the Republicans have a painful path ahead of them.  What they’re doing now isn’t working, and will become even less likely to work in the future.  Some, egged on by the hosts of their “Entertainment” wing, will demand an even more pure version of what they are today, because that’s where the pundits’ bread is buttered.  Many will blame the voters, ignoring the market-based truism that the customer is always right.  They’ll argue amongst themselves.  But if they want to win, they’ll have to find their own Bill Clinton.  They’ll have to change.

Posted by David Preston