The key to understanding the 2012 election is simple: A huge slice of the electorate stayed home.
The punditocracy — which is more of the ruling class than an eye on the ruling class — has naturally decided that this is because Republicans are not enough like Democrats: They need to play more identity politics (in particular, adopt the Left’s embrace of illegal immigration) in order to be viable. But the story is not about who voted; it is about who didn’t vote. In truth, millions of Americans have decided that Republicans are not a viable alternative because they are already too much like Democrats. They are Washington. With no hope that a Romney administration or more Republicans in Congress would change this sad state of affairs, these voters shrugged their shoulders and became non-voters.
“This is the most important election of our lifetime.” That was the ubiquitous rally cry of Republican leaders. The country yawned. About 11 million fewer Americans voted for the two major-party candidates in 2012 — 119 million, down from 130 million in 2008. In fact, even though our population has steadily increased in the last eight years (adding 16 million to the 2004 estimate of 293 million Americans), about 2 million fewer Americans pulled the lever for Obama and Romney than for George W. Bush and John Kerry.
That is staggering. And, as if to ensure that conservatives continue making the same mistakes that have given us four more years of ruinous debt, economic stagnation, unsustainable dependency, Islamist empowerment, and a crippling transfer of sovereignty to global tribunals, Tuesday’s post-mortems fixate on the unremarkable fact that reliable Democratic constituencies broke overwhelmingly for Democrats. Again, to focus on the vote is to miss the far more consequential non-vote. The millions who stayed home relative to the 2008 vote equal the population of Ohio — the decisive state. If just a sliver of them had come out for Romney, do you suppose the media would be fretting about the Democrats’ growing disconnect with white people?
Obama lost an incredible 9 million voters from his 2008 haul. If told on Monday that fully 13 percent of the president’s support would vanish, the GOP establishment would have stocked up on champagne and confetti.
To be sure, some of the Obama slide is attributable to “super-storm” Sandy. Its chaotic aftermath reduced turnout in a couple of big blue states: New York, where about 6 million people voted, and New Jersey, where 3.5 million did. That is down from 2008 by 15 and 12 percent, respectively. Yet, given that these solidly Obama states were not in play, and that — thanks to Chris Christie’s exuberance — our hyper-partisan president was made to look like a bipartisan healer, Sandy has to be considered a big net plus on Obama’s ledger.
There also appears to have been some slippage in the youth vote, down 3 percent from 2008 levels — 49 percent participation, down from 52 percent. But even with this dip, the under-30 crowd was a boon for the president. Thanks to the steep drop in overall voter participation, the youth vote actually increased as a percentage of the electorate — 19 percent, up from 18 percent. Indeed, if there is any silver lining for conservatives here, it’s that Obama was hurt more by the decrease in his level of support from this demographic — down six points from the 66 percent he claimed in 2008 — than by the marginal drop in total youth participation. It seems to be dawning on at least some young adults that Obamaville is a bleak place to build a future.
Put aside the fact that, as the election played out, Sandy was a critical boost for the president. Let’s pretend that it was just a vote drain — one that explains at least some of the slight drop in young voters. What did it really cost Obama? Maybe a million votes? It doesn’t come close to accounting for the cratering of his support. Even if he had lost only 8 million votes, that would still have been 11 percent of his 2008 vote haul gone poof. Romney should have won going away.
Yet, he did not. Somehow, Romney managed to pull nearly 2 million fewer votes than John McCain, one of the weakest Republican nominees ever, and one who ran in a cycle when the party had sunk to historic depths of unpopularity. How to explain that?
The brute fact is: There are many people in the country who believe it makes no difference which party wins these elections. Obama Democrats are the hard Left, but Washington’s Republican establishment is progressive, not conservative. This has solidified statism as the bipartisan mainstream. Republicans may want to run Leviathan — many are actually perfectly happy in the minority — but they have no real interest in dismantling Leviathan. They are simply not about transferring power out of Washington, not in a material way.
As the 2012 campaign elucidated, the GOP wants to be seen as the party of preserving the unsustainable welfare state. When it comes to defense spending, they are just as irresponsible as Democrats in eschewing adult choices. Yes, Democrats are reckless in refusing to acknowledge the suicidal costs of their cradle-to-grave nanny state, but the Republican campaign called for enlarging a military our current spending on which dwarfs the combined defense budgets of the next several highest-spending nations. When was the last time you heard a Republican explain what departments and entitlements he’d slash to pay for that? In fact, when did the GOP last explain how a country that is in a $16 trillion debt hole could afford to enlarge anything besides its loan payments?
Our bipartisan ruling class is obtuse when it comes to the cliff we’re falling off — and I don’t mean January’s so-called “Taxmageddon,” which is a day at the beach compared to what’s coming.
As ZeroHedge points out, we now pay out $250 billion more on mandatory obligations (i.e., just entitlements and interest on the debt) than we collect in taxes. Understand, that’s an annual deficit of a quarter trillion dollars before one thin dime is spent on the exorbitant $1.3 trillion discretionary budget — a little over half of which is defense spending, and the rest the limitless array of tasks that Republicans, like Democrats, have decided the states and the people cannot handle without Washington overlords.
What happens, moreover, when we have a truly egregious Washington scandal, like the terrorist murder of Americans in Benghazi? What do Republicans do? The party’s nominee decides the issue is not worth engaging on — cutting the legs out from under Americans who see Benghazi as a debacle worse than Watergate, as the logical end of the Beltway’s pro-Islamist delirium. In the void, the party establishment proceeds to delegate its response to John McCain and Lindsey Graham: the self-styled foreign-policy gurus who urged Obama to entangle us with Benghazi’s jihadists in the first place, and who are now pushing for a repeat performance in Syria — a new adventure in Islamist empowerment at a time when most Americans have decided Iraq was a catastrophe and Afghanistan is a death trap where our straitjacketed troops are regularly shot by the ingrates they’ve been sent to help.
Republicans talk about limited central government, but they do not believe in it — or, if they do, they lack confidence that they can explain its benefits compellingly. They’ve bought the Democrats’ core conceit that the modern world is just too complicated for ordinary people to make their way without bureaucratic instruction. They look at a money-hemorrhaging disaster like Medicare, whose unsustainability is precisely caused by the intrusion of government, and they say, “Let’s preserve it — in fact, let’s make its preservation the centerpiece of our campaign.”
The calculation is straightforward: Republicans lack the courage to argue from conviction that health care would work better without federal mandates and control — that safety nets are best designed by the states, the people, and local conditions, not Washington diktat. In their paralysis, we are left with a system that will soon implode, a system that will not provide care for the people being coerced to pay in. Most everybody knows this is so, yet Republicans find themselves too cowed or too content to advocate dramatic change when only dramatic change will save us. They look at education, the mortgage crisis, and a thousand other things the same way — intimidated by the press, unable to articulate the case that Washington makes things worse.
Truth be told, most of today’s GOP does not believe Washington makes things worse. Republicans think the federal government — by confiscating, borrowing, and printing money — is the answer to every problem, rather than the source of most. That is why those running the party today, when they ran Washington during the Bush years, orchestrated an expansion of government size, scope, and spending that would still boggle the mind had Obama not come along. (See Jonah Goldberg’s jaw-dropping tally from early 2004 — long before we knew their final debt tab would come to nearly $5 trillion.) No matter what they say in campaigns, today’s Republicans are champions of massive, centralized government. They just think it needs to be run smarter — as if the problem were not human nature and the nature of government, but just that we haven’t quite gotten the org-chart right yet.
That is not materially different from what the Democrats believe. It’s certainly not an alternative. For Americans who think elections can make a real difference, Tuesday pitted proud progressives against reticent progressives; slightly more preferred the true-believers. For Americans who don’t see much daylight between the two parties — one led by the president who keeps spending money we don’t have and the other by congressional Republicans who keep writing the checks and extending the credit line — voting wasn’t worth the effort.
Those millions of Americans need a new choice. We all do.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, which was published by Encounter Books.