Politics & Policy

Why Romney Lost

“Why should our side preside over a fiasco?”

About a month ago I jotted down some notes on an index card and wrote across the top “Why Romney Lost.” It was not that I was certain he was going to lose. In fact I had talked myself into believing he had a real shot. However, I thought that, if he lost, we would be able to look back at some things that had already been baked into the cake and that he simply was not able to overcome. They were as follows (and I paraphrase a bit):

‐“Being a businessman worked against him.” It seemed to me that, although Romney was the kind of guy you’d want to “fix” the economy, Obama persuaded a lot of people that Mitt was also the kind of guy who caused the problem in the first place: the Wall Street fat cat. And Romney never properly explained how turning a private business around improved our national economy.

‐ “Peanut allergies are epidemic and we’ve nominated Mr. Planter.” (You know, the peanut guy on the side of the peanut jar in the top hat with a cane and a monocle.) This follows from the first point. At a time when everybody is hurting, our guy is super wealthy. It didn’t hurt President Kennedy when he supported tax cuts for the wealthy, as Romney did not, but Kennedy was operating under the Democratic standard. Nobody will admit to class envy in an exit poll, but it’s there in hard times. And Obama is exceptionally good at this sort of demagoguery.

‐ “Role of money.” Here I was thinking that Mitt didn’t have the money to defend himself early on when Team Obama was ruthlessly attacking him. Ironically, it was the tremendous money advantage Romney had in the primary that allowed him to decimate his opponents, which is also the reason that fewer people felt sorry for Romney when the shoe was on the other foot.

‐ “Couldn’t make the case.” Romney could never articulate the case for the free market — the economic arrangement that has benefited more poor and middle-class people in America and around the world than all of the government programs ever known to man. He had the same problem in defending lower tax rates. I kept waiting for one simple chart showing how much of our deficit and debt problem would be solved by Obama’s soak-the-rich solution. Its insignificance should have been part of an attack on Obama’s credibility. It was as if Mitt was defensive about anything that touched on his wealth or the system that produced it.

‐ “People concluded it doesn’t matter.” I’ll come back to this one.

Looking at the above list today, I believe that all the items played their part in the election results. However, the list is obviously incomplete. There were some minor, but important, demographic changes since 2008, and the Obama team did an excellent job of getting their constituent groups to the polls. After the election in 2008, they never stopped organizing in the swing states — another of the many advantages of incumbency.

Hurricane Sandy and the “Christie embrace” of Obama played its part. Also,  Romney probably should have brought the Benghazi scandal more forcefully to the attention of the American people. I thought that he was tactically smart not to bring it up in the last debate and to allow Obama his canned baloney moment, but new information kept coming out. A well-thought-out, well-crafted statement or question to the president about the obvious lack of protection or aid to our people and the subsequent, blatant cover-up would have put the president on the spot, not to mention that it would have been a public service. Mitt’s reticence was due to prior mistakes the campaign made. First, they took foreign policy off the table, so when Benghazi happened their criticism had no context. Second, the Romney campaign was correct in substance but jumped the gun in its immediate criticism, failing to anticipate that the media would focus on Romney’s comments and not Obama’s policy. Then in the second debate there was the Candy Crowley moment. They say that a cat won’t sit on a hot stove a second time — and won’t sit on a cold one either. Given that history with the issue, Mitt wanted nothing more to do with it.

Despite all of this, Mitt kept it close with good debate performances. He fought hard and courageously, and we should resist the piling on we always seem to do when our guy loses. No candidate is perfect, and every campaign makes mistakes. The popular-vote margin was about 2 percentage points, and no one really knows what tips the balance in a close race.

There is one thing that may be overlooked amid all of the post-election punditry. In my month-old “Why Romney Lost” list was this: “People concluded it doesn’t matter.” In other words, it doesn’t matter who is elected. I was not referring to the citizen dropouts or the cynics who think all politicians are the same. I meant the concerned citizens who keep up with what is going on and who understand human nature, arithmetic, history, and common sense.

What if a large portion of those people looked closely at our country’s fiscal condition and concluded that things are going to have to get worse before they get better and that, with a divided country and a divided Congress, there was no chance of moving in the right direction in the next four years? They look at our trajectory and see no possible political resolutions or any real alternatives that don’t involve a major crisis or a currency devaluation, or both. “Why should our side preside over such a fiasco?” they asked. Even animosity toward Obama wouldn’t motivate them to go to the polls to vote against him. Rather, it would be, “Let him take the credit for the disaster. Then we’ll start over.”

That was my concern a month ago. But since then I became convinced that one thing was certain. The enthusiasm of Republicans and others who wanted to replace Obama was very strong — perhaps strong enough to create a political tidal wave. Now I read that Romney got fewer votes than John McCain. It seems pretty clear that many supposed Romney voters stayed home on Election Day. How could that be? Did the Obama TV ads persuade them that Mitt was a bad guy? Was he not conservative enough for them? Was it silent anti-Mormonism?

None of that makes sense. The average conservative would walk miles to vote against Obama. And apparently Romney beat McCain in the Evangelical vote.

I’m afraid that my original concern about those who think “it doesn’t make any difference” may have been right, and more than anything else it may have cost Romney the election. I don’t agree with them, but I understand their thinking.

— Fred Thompson is a former U.S. Senator from Tennessee.  


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