Politics & Policy

How Romney Lost

And three lessons for conservatives going forward.

Columbus, Ohio — The realities of the electoral map meant that the Romney campaign really had no choice but to bet big on Ohio, and that bet was a loser. In addition to some critical on-the-ground specifics — Ohio is not hurting as badly as the rest of the country — there were three main reasons for that.

1. Ohio likes crony capitalism. The automotive bailout is popular in Ohio, and not just among self-interested workers and investors in that industry. Putting General Motors on federal life support is economically daft and morally dubious, but it gave the Obama administration a powerful tool for convincing middle-class workers that the president is on their side. He might be doing something silly and destructive, but to be seen as doing something is politically useful. That it was General Motors and Chrysler was critical: Americans have a particularly romantic attitude toward automobile manufacturers, probably because Americans have a particularly romantic attitude toward automobiles. The (mostly mythical) image of the blue-collar homeowner supporting a four-person family in comfort by spending 40 hours a week on the assembly line is up there with mom and apple pie in the pantheon of American sentimentality. If President Obama had associated himself with the bailout of, say, Eastman Kodak — which will cease providing health care and other benefits to 56,000 retirees as part of its bankruptcy — it would not have imbued him with quite the same glow. And that is a specific instance of the more general and lamentable fact that . . . 

2. Class warfare works. It is juvenile and it is economically illiterate, but a fair number of Americans worked themselves up into a lather over Mitt Romney’s paying a relatively low tax rate. Taxing capital gains at a lower rate than wages has been for a long time a mostly uncontroversial economic policy with fairly wide support across the partisan and ideological spectrum. When Bill Clinton signed into a law a reduction in the capital-gains tax rate, there was no mutiny on the left. More broadly, most voters do not have anything like the economic sophistication even to understand what Romney did at Bain Capital, much less how such private-equity firms provide real economic benefits. These are the citizens Bastiat had in mind when he wrote about what is seen and what is unseen: They can see outsourcing and declining manufacturing employment, but they cannot see (at least not very clearly) the benefits associated with integrated global supply chains or increases in manufacturing productivity. It may not be possible to be too thin, but it is, apparently, possible to be too rich, at least for an electorate that can be swayed by envy. 

3. Repealing Obamacare was not a deal cincher in Ohio. A number of people I spoke to in the state suggested that the Romney-Ryan ticket paid too much attention to repealing Obamacare without spelling out an alternative that was sufficiently simple and attractive to voters who are not committed conservatives. One veteran of the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations argued that while Ohio voters may not be crazy about the Affordable Care Act, neither are they burning partisans of the campaign to repeal it. As with the GM bailout, many voters regard Obamacare as an example of the administration’s trying to do something for them, even if they are not entirely sold on the particulars.

There is not much in this to comfort conservatives. The lessons of Ohio are that Barack Obama is a skillful demagogue, that the ancients were wise to number envy among the deadly sins, and that offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This is what Oakeshott had in mind when he wrote that liberty was something that many people simply are not equipped to “enjoy as an opportunity rather than suffer as a burden.”

For many years, Republicans have relied on Jude Wanniski’s “Two Santa Claus” theory, the strategy of using the promise of tax cuts to compete with Democrats’ promises of cash and other benefits. In part as a consequence of that strategy, a great many Americans pay little or no federal income taxes, while many of the other federal taxes they pay are indirect or partly hidden. Mitt Romney was right: You can’t use tax cuts to buy off people who are net recipients of tax transfers. Figuring out what we can offer them that is consistent with our principles is the task of conservatives between now and the next election.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving reporter for National Review.


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