How bad is it? What went wrong? And what comes next?
For a right-of-center person staggering out of bed this morning, it's a pretty grim picture. It was one thing for America to have elected Barack Obama president in 2008 when voters might have thought he was some kind of post-partisan figure. But this time around, with his record of polarizing failure there for all to see, is a kind of "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" moment. And four more years of Mr. Obama is just the beginning. Get ready for Senator Elizabeth Warren (she won). California voters approved Proposition 30, which raises sales taxes in the state and increases income taxes on Californians who earn more than $250,000 a year (The top state income tax rate in California will increase to 12.3% from 9.3%.)
If one is an optimist — and many right-of-center people are — there are a few bright spots to focus on, but one has to look fairly hard to find them. Republicans held control of the House of Representatives, and in the Senate, the Democrats hold less than the 60 votes they would need to break a filibuster. That result after the 2010 election was hailed at the time as a huge victory, and Republicans then used their majority in the House to win an extension of the Bush tax cuts and approval of free trade agreements. Governor's races are another bright spot: Republicans now control 30 governorships, the most Republican governors since 2000.
But even so, a lot of the tens of millions of people who voted against Mr. Obama have to wake up this morning wondering how in the world this could have happened. Mr. Obama's victory speech wasn't much of a reassurance. Sure, it contained some olive-branch type language: "we are not as divided as our politics suggests. … we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America." But it also contained all of the things that exasperate a lot of Americans about Barack Obama. There was post-colonialism combined with grandiosity: "Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward," he began. And there was the demonizing depiction of business, insurance companies in particular, as something Americans need to be protected from: "just the other day in Mentor, Ohio… a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter whose long battle with leukemia nearly cost their family everything had it not been for health care reform passing just a few months before the insurance company was about to stop paying for her care." (Never mind that the health insurance companies mostly supported ObamaCare because it forces more Americans to become their customers.) He gave a hint of his agenda: "in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together — reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil."
For an explanation of why Mr. Romney lost, my September 10 column holds up pretty well in retrospect:
Mr. Romney did not mention his tax-cutting plans in his convention speech, avoided tax simplification as an issue, and was vague about his plan to reduce tax breaks for upper-income taxpayers (another issue on which he agrees with President Obama.) He ran promising to spend more on Medicare than President Obama would, and praising McCain-Feingold-style campaign spending limits.
Generationally, Mr. Romney, 65-years-old and gray-at-the-temples, is an odd choice to deliver a message about federal debt reduction. Younger Republicans, like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, connect better with the younger voters who will have to pay off the debt, and those next-generation politicians may have their chance to do so in the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign.
Mr. Romney's economic message was so gloomy that he sometimes sounded like a candidate trying to get elected entirely with the votes of the 8% of Americans who are unemployed.
By this line of explanation, the rejection of Mr. Romney is not so much a rejection of the Republican Party or of conservative or free-market policies or ideas, but of Mr. Romney and his particularly odd campaign.
To that I would add a few other observations.
First, it wasn't enough for Mr. Romney to run a cautious campaign. The election can't just be a referendum on an incumbent. One can't beat something with nothing, and in Mr. Romney's case there was too much focus on Obama's failings, and not enough focus on presenting a positive alternative. Mr. Romney in 2012 was a bit like John Kerry for the Democrats in 2004, or Bob Dole for the Republicans in 1996. Voters went to the polls eager to vote against the incumbent, but without much enthusiasm for the challenger. Republicans were saying, "I can't wait to rid the country of the enormous burden of President Obama," but they weren't saying, "I can't wait for President Romney."
Second, The Wall Street Journal, in its editorial this morning, writes that Mr. Romney's "single worst decision may have been to challenge Texas Governor Rick Perry in the primaries by running to his right on immigration. … Mr. Romney missed later chances to move to the middle on immigration reform, especially Senator Marco Rubio's compromise on the Dream Act for young immigrants brought here by their parents. … The exit polls show that Mr. Romney did even worse among Hispanics than John McCain in 2008, and we may learn in coming days that this was the margin in some swing states. The GOP needs to leave its anti-immigration absolutists behind." I think the Journal is correct about this. George W. Bush, to his great and everlasting credit, understood this, as did Reagan. It's really important.
Third, in the debates, which took place after that September 10 column on why Mr. Romney was losing, Mr. Romney showed some of what was wrong with his campaign. He attacked garage-based businesses. He said he didn't plan a big tax cut and said he'd spend more on Medicare than President Obama would. He promised to impose tariffs on goods imported from China and said he would "make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing."
And fourth, the wealthy backers of Mr. Romney who poured tens of millions of dollars into trying to oust Mr. Obama and got little to show for it have to be feeling glum this morning. There's no place to go for a refund on that spending. While the Republicans can console themselves that they kept the House in Republican control and did all that they could to prevent an Obama victory, there has to be some kind of reckoning in terms of how much money the Republican campaign operatives and television consultants kept for themselves versus how much was spent, and what the return on investment was on what was spent.
What comes next? Superpacs and microtargeting and television commercials can only do so much. At some point one also needs a politician that understands the issues and can communicate them to the public. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Obama's policies — I disagree vigorously with many of them — one can't help but almost grudgingly admire his capacity, at his best, to inspire and motivate. Reagan could do that. Jack Kemp could do that. If the Republicans are to retake the White House, it may be with someone from a new, younger set of politicians that includes some women and some non-white guys. This morning, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie are thinking about 2016. So, maybe, are John Kasich, Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Eric Cantor, and Nikki Haley. But even politicians can only do so much; a party needs ideas. The book Coolidge by Amity Shlaes is scheduled for release on February 12, 2013. Mr. Obama said "the task of perfecting our union moves forward." Some people may take that a bit differently than the president might have meant it.