The first thing conservatives should understand about the electoral catastrophe that just befell us — and it was a catastrophe — is that any explanation of it that centers on Mitt Romney is mistaken.
Much of the discussion of the race among conservatives has made the opposite assumption. “Romney proved to be the kind of electoral drag many of us suspected he would always be,” wrote one conservative the morning after the election. “It was a flawed candidacy from the start,” wrote two others. “Romney’s caution and ever-shifting policy positions made him seem fearful, which is to say weak. His biography hurt him. . . . And because of his own history in Massachusetts, he could never effectively go after President Obama on Obamacare, the president’s biggest political weakness.” Another called Romney “the worst candidate to win his party’s nomination since WWII.” Still another wrote, “There will be a lot of blame to go around, but, if Republicans are honest, they’ll have to concede that the Romney campaign ran a bad campaign.”
All of these writers are intelligent people (some of them friends of mine). None of them makes the mistake of assuming that this election should have been easy to win given the weak economy, the public’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the unpopularity of Obamacare. They know that the economy has been improving, that the Democratic base in presidential races has been expanding for decades, and that the public still blames George W. Bush and his party for an economic crisis that began during his second term. Nor are they entirely wrong in their diagnoses of Romney’s distinctive weaknesses and errors. They err mainly in attributing too much importance to them.
Romney was not a drag on the Republican party. The Republican party was a drag on him. Aaron Blake pointed out in the Washington Post that Romney ran ahead of most of the Republican Senate candidates: He did better than Connie Mack in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Pete Hoekstra in Michigan, Deb Fischer in Nebraska, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and of course Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In some cases Romney did a lot better. (He also did slightly better than Ted Cruz in Texas, a race Blake for some reason ignored.)
None of those candidates were as rich as Romney, and almost all of them had more consistently conservative records than he did. It didn’t help them win more votes. The only Republican Senate candidates who ran significantly ahead of Romney were people running well to his left in blue states, and they lost too.
Akin and Mourdock have received a lot of attention because they fit into the story of the Senate elections of 2010. Most observers believe that Republican-primary voters threw away three Senate seats that year by choosing unelectable extremists over candidates who could have won. This year, Akin and Mourdock each made comments about abortion and rape that doomed them. If not for these five mistakes in candidate selection, Republicans would have 50 seats. So goes the story.
It’s an accurate one as far as it goes. But it is not the story of the 2012 Senate races. Berg, Allen, Thompson, and Rehberg all lost, but they were not unelectable extremists: All of them had won statewide races before. We could try to explain these defeats in terms of each candidate’s particular weaknesses. Blake, the Post reporter, hints at such an explanation: “It’s pretty clear that lackluster candidates cost Republicans multiple Senate seats on Election Day.” No. That’s the 2010 story. The 2012 Senate races were more like the ones in 2006 and 2008: wipeouts for Republicans of every description — veterans and newcomers, conservative purists and relative moderates alike.
All these candidates lost not because of the idiosyncrasies of this or that candidate or the flaws of this or that faction of the Republican party. They lost not because of the particular vices of the Tea Party, or of social conservatives, or of the party establishment. The most logical explanation for the pattern is that something common to all Republicans brought them down, and the simplest explanation is that their party is weak — and has been for a long time. Consider the evidence: Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Since the Senate reached its current size, Democrats have had more than 55 seats 13 times; Republicans, never.
Before settling on this story of party weakness, we need to examine three apparent pieces of evidence of strength. The first is that Republicans retained control of the House even as they lost the presidential and Senate races. Republicans are likely to have their second-largest House majority in 60 years. They appear, however, to have narrowly lost the popular vote for the House. One reason they won so many seats anyway is that 2010 was an unusually good Republican year, and Republicans were therefore able to draw the lines of congressional districts following that year’s census. What the House success demonstrates, in part, is that Republicans can do well when they choose the voters rather than vice versa. Another reason for the House success, as Michael Barone has observed, is that the geographic distribution of Republican voters within states tends to favor them. That’s not much help, though, in amassing a national majority from statewide races.
The second piece of evidence for Republican political strength is that they hold 30 of the 50 governorships. That strength, too, is misleading. Each of those Republican governors was elected either in a state Romney carried or in the unusually Republican years of 2009 and 2010 — or, in most cases, both.
Third is that as recently as eight years ago Republicans won the White House as well as respectable majorities in the House and Senate. Even at that height, though, they had nothing like the dominance in Congress that Democrats had in the late 1970s, or 1993–94, or 2009–10. The Republican success of 2004 partly reflects the fact that it was the first presidential election following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Even in that good Republican year, though, Republicans went down one Senate seat, net, outside the South (while gaining five in the South).
Republican weakness emerges even more clearly when we look at a longer timescale. From 1896 through 1930, Republicans were the dominant party, holding the White House and Congress most of the time and losing the presidency only when they split, as in 1912 and 1916. The Great Depression made the Democrats into the dominant party until 1968. Only one Republican won the presidency during that period, and under highly unusual circumstances: He had won World War II, the Democrats had held the presidency for five consecutive terms, and the country was beset by inflation, corruption, and an unpopular war in Korea.
The Democrats lost majority status in 1968 — they would lose five of six presidential elections from that year through 1988, and win one by a hair — but Republicans did not gain it. They never held the House and rarely held the Senate during that streak of presidential wins. Why didn’t Republicans become the dominant party then? It wasn’t because of foreign policy: That boosted them during the second half of the Cold War, when the Democrats became the relatively dovish party. That’s a big reason Republicans did better at the presidential than at the congressional level. It wasn’t because of social issues: The hippies and McGovernites helped make Republicans the party of middle-class values.
What they did not do is make the Republicans the party of middle-class economic interests. Most Americans associated the party with big business and the country club, and did not agree with its impulses on the minimum wage, entitlement programs, and other forms of government activism designed to protect ordinary people from cold markets. Americans came to be skeptical of government activism mainly when they thought it was undermining middle-class values (as they thought welfare undermined the work ethic). And even when voters thought Republicans were better managers of the economy in general, they thought the GOP looked out for the rich rather than the common man.
This pattern of voter preferences — favoring the GOP on values and foreign policy, the Democrats on middle-class economics — persisted for a long time. There were always exceptions. On some social issues — for example, stem cells during the George W. Bush presidency — the public sided with the Democrats. On some economic issues, such as taxes during the Reagan presidency, the public sided with Republicans.
The generalization nonetheless holds. Clinton won the White House because of the recession of the early 1990s, of course, but also because the end of the Cold War took foreign policy off the table, badly weakening Republicans, and because he systematically addressed Democratic liabilities on welfare, crime, and other values-laden issues. During the presidential debates of 2004, Bush did well on social-issue questions while being defensive on economic issues. In 2006, when Democrats took Congress, they racked up their biggest margin against a Senate incumbent in Pennsylvania, where they ran a candidate who opposed abortion and same-sex marriage.
For the last 50 years, voters have been alarmed by rapid expansions of government (which goes a long way toward explaining the good Republican years of 1966, 1978, 1980, 1994, and 2010) but also by the prospect of major cuts to government (which goes some way toward explaining 1996 and 2012). In other years, they have held vaguely government-skeptical sentiments while approving most proposals for gradual increases in government assistance (for families paying for college, seniors trying to get prescription drugs, and so on).
After the 2006 and 2008 Democratic blowouts, liberals started to view their victory as the new normal in American politics, the result of inexorable demographic forces. After the 2010 Republican victories, some conservatives began to think that was the new normal. Republicans, they thought, had lost in ’06 and ’08 because of the Iraq War, the financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s big spending, and congressional scandals. Given a straight-up choice between conservatism and liberalism, though, the people would choose the former. The 2012 results give credibility to the liberal interpretation and subtract it from the conservative one. It’s the 2010 election, not the 2008 one, that is starting to look aberrant.
The Iraq War, the financial crisis, and other issues specific to the late Bush years obviously did play a huge role in the 2006 and 2008 defeats. But it’s also true that Republicans weren’t even arguing that they had a domestic agenda that would yield any direct benefits for most voters, and that has to have hurt them. Taxes had been the most powerful economic issue for Republicans for a generation, but Republicans misunderstood why. In the ’80s and ’90s, Republicans ran five presidential campaigns promising to make or keep middle-class taxes lower than they would be under Democrats, and won four of them. In 2008 they made no such promise but did say they would lower the corporate tax rate.
In the exit polls in 2008, 60 percent of voters said that McCain was not “in touch with people like them.” McCain lost 79 percent of the voters who said that. To get a majority of the popular vote, he would have had to win 96 percent of the 39 percent of voters who were willing to say he passed the threshold test of understanding their concerns. It’s amazing he came as close as he did. (Fifty-seven percent of voters said Obama was in touch, and he had to win only 81 percent of them; he got 86 percent.)
In 2012, the exit pollsters asked a different version of the question: “Who is more in touch with people like you?” Obama beat Romney by ten points, even while losing the “better handle the economy” question by one. Romney, unlike McCain, did offer middle-class voters a tax cut, although it’s not clear that this fact made its way through the din of the campaign to register with the voters. His campaign made efforts — sporadic rather than sustained — to make the case that his agenda would deliver stronger growth and higher wages. He rarely suggested it would make health care more affordable.
On only one issue did the campaign consistently make the case that Romney would take specific actions that would yield tangible benefits for most Americans: He would allow energy exploration, which would reduce the cost of living for everyone. He devoted time to that theme in his convention speech, which did not touch on affordable health care, higher wages, or the middle class. The energy argument was sufficiently effective that Obama had to steal some of its rhetoric.
The absence of a middle-class message was the biggest failure of the Romney campaign, and it was not its failure alone. Down-ticket Republican candidates weren’t offering anything more — not the established Republicans, not the tea-partiers, not the social conservatives. Conservative activists weren’t demanding that Romney or any of these other Republicans do anything more. Some of them were complaining that Romney wasn’t “taking the fight to Obama”; few of them were urging him to outline a health-care plan that would reassure voters that replacing Obamacare wouldn’t mean taking health insurance away from millions of people.
Romney’s infamous “47 percent” gaffe — by which he characterized voters who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders and sure Democratic voters, which they aren’t — made for a week of bad media coverage and some devastatingly effective Democratic ads. It was not, however, a line of thinking unique to Romney. It was an exaggerated version of a claim that had become party orthodoxy.
A different Republican presidential nominee might not have made exactly that gaffe, or had a financial-industry background that lent itself to attacks on outsourcing. He would almost certainly have had a similar weakness on economic policy, however, and might have had additional weaknesses too. (Romney at least won independent voters, which it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum having done.) To put it differently: The problem isn’t so much that Romney was vulnerable to a set of attacks that appear to have discouraged working-class whites from voting; it’s that he didn’t have anything positive with which to counter those attacks.
The Republican story about how societies prosper — not just the Romney story — dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator. He, or she, is trying to make a living and support or maybe start a family. A conservative reform of our health-care system and tax code, among other institutions, might help with these goals. About this person, however, Republicans have had little to say.
In the days since the election, Republicans have received (and given one another) a lot of advice: Step up the ground game. Soften on immigration and abortion. Embrace same-sex marriage. Appeal more to single women, Hispanics, and young people. Run the younger, more charismatic candidates Republicans have waiting in the wings. Some of this advice is good, and some of it bad. But the weakness of the Republican party predates the emergence of same-sex marriage as an issue, the development of Democratic micro-targeting strategies, and the growth of the Hispanic vote. And wasn’t Josh Mandel, the losing Ohio Senate candidate, supposed to be one of those great young conservative hopes? However much charisma and brains the next crop of Republicans brings to their campaigns, they need a stronger party.
The perception that the Republican party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms. Hispanics do not vote for the Democrats solely because of immigration. Many of them are poor and lack health insurance, and they hear nothing from the Republicans but a lot from the Democrats about bettering their situation. Young people, too, are economically insecure, especially these days. If Republicans found a way to apply conservative principles in ways that offered tangible benefits to most voters and then talked about this agenda in those terms, they would improve their standing among all of these groups while also increasing their appeal to white working-class voters. For that matter, higher-income voters would prefer candidates who seem practical and solution-oriented. Better “communications skills,” that perennial item on the wish list of losing parties, will achieve little if the party does not have an appealing agenda to communicate.
Despair has led many Republicans to question their earlier confidence that America is a “center-right country.” It is certainly a country that has strong conservative impulses: skepticism of government, respect for religion, concern for the family. What the country does not have is a center-right party that explains how to act on these impulses to improve the national condition. Until it does, it won’t have a center-right political majority either.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor of National Review.