Over the weekend, conservative activists and politicians got together under the banner of the National Review to discuss the future. How can Republicans recover from 2012 and move the United States away from the liberalism of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party? While some political observers have called for ideological reform—a reorientation of the GOP’s priorities—Republicans themselves are less interested in taking this path. According to GOP insiders, notes Politico in a story on the summit, 2012 had little to do with substance and everything to do with message. If Republicans can change the package—and find someone more engaging than Mitt Romney—they can win:
“It’s not the platform of the party that’s the issue,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said Friday after being easily reelected to a second, two-year term. “In many cases, it’s how we communicate about it. It is a couple dumb things that people have said.” A slide presented during a closed-press strategy session said that Mitt Romney might be president if he had won fewer than 400,000 more votes in key swing states. “We don’t need a new pair of shoes; we just need to shine our shoes,” said West Virginia national committeewoman Melody Potter.
That 400,000 votes separated Romney from the presidency is a quirk of our electoral system, and Republicans will mislead themselves if they focus on that number.
Mitt Romney didn’t just lose to Obama in the 2012 presidential election: He underperformed. The consensus projection from political scientists and election forecasters was that it would be a close election, with a slight advantage for President Obama. Romney wouldn’t win, but he would come close to breaking 50 percent. This, it turns out, was too optimistic for the former Massachusetts governor, who lost by 4 million votes. In the end, he finished with 47.1 percent of the vote, a small improvement over John McCain’s performance in 2008.
Fundamentals can explain Obama’s win, but they don’t account for Romney’s surprisingly small share of the vote—and they certainly don’t explain the GOP’s poor performance in Senate elections, where mainstream and Tea Party Republicans lost to their Democratic counterparts. Twenty-twelve began as the year Republicans would win a majority in the Senate, and ended as the year Democrats expanded their advantage.
Exit polls provide a few clues about why voters rejected the Republican Party at all levels. Thirty-eight percent of voters said unemployment was the biggest issue facing people like themselves, and of them, 54 percent voted for President Obama. Fifty-five percent of voters said the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy (71 percent of them voted for Obama), and 53 percent said Mitt Romney’s policies “generally favor the wealthy” (87 percent voted for Obama).
If you weren’t well-off—if you were struggling—you didn’t vote for Romney; the GOP had nothing to offer you. Romney might disparage politicians who give “gifts” to the public, but the fact of the matter is that voters support leaders who provide—or can promise—tangible benefits. At most, Republicans promised greater “growth” from cutting taxes, slashing spending, and reducing regulations.
Americans didn’t bite, because those policies don’t work (they remember the previous administration) and because they don’t trust Republicans to govern (they remember the previous administration). The GOP brand is still reeling from the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. To wit, 53 percent of voters last year said Bush was responsible for our current economic problems, compared with 38 percent for Obama. It’s no wonder voters gave Obama a second term—it takes more than four years to clean up a mess of that magnitude.
Any attempt to fix the problems of the Republican Party—to build a conservatism attuned to the needs of ordinary people—needs to start with an examination of the Bush years. So far, however, Republicans seem uninterested in self-reflection. The most prominent voices in the party—Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Florida senator Marco Rubio, Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan, Texas senator Ted Cruz—insist on purity as the way back to power. If Bush failed, it’s because he spent too much. Unmentioned is everything else—the belligerence, the wars, the general incompetence.
It’s still too early to say what will happen in the next few election cycles. But I continue to think that the Republican Party has weighed itself down by refusing to deal with the failures of the Bush administration. The GOP can certainly move forward without reforming its policies or changing its priorities. The question is whether that breeds success. Given everything—the GOP’s unpopularity, the country’s changing demographics, Obama’s improving political prospects—I have my doubts.