Image via Politico
Unseating an incumbent president is no easy task. Americans aren’t wont to change horses in midstream, and we’re terribly afraid of the unknown. For the nation’s highest office to be passed to someone else, circumstances have to be pretty dire.
They were. And Republicans were still beaten handily.
As Jay Cost and others have noted, the electorate tends to undergo a two step process when considering whether to vote for an incumbent or a challenger. First, it determines whether or not the incumbent has done a good enough job to merit reelection. If they have, then it’s case closed, and the incumbent wins. If not, the electorate will consider the challenger, who must seem like an acceptable alternative in order to win.
It is quite clear that President Obama did not earn reelection on his own merits. He presided over one of the worst economies in national history, marked by 7.9 percent unemployment and less than 200,000 jobs created per month (far below the number necessary for growth). The federal debt has grown by over 70 percent since late 2008, and his team failed to even act on the tame recommendations made by his own blue ribbon deficit reduction panel. Instead of telling Americans that we face tough choices and will have to sacrifice something, Obama spouted off populist nonsense about the rich needing to pay their “fair share”, willfully ignoring basic arithmetic.
President Obama violated the War Powers Act no less than twice in ordering drone strikes in Yemen and military intervention in Libya. He has failed on just about every civil liberties promise he campaigned on in 2008, including but not limited to ordering the incarceration of American citizens without trials, continuing warrantless wiretapping, and refusing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. These policy failures were recognized by the public: according to RealClearPolitics weekly averages, the president’s job approval rating this year was at or above 50 percent only twice before election day.
With the incumbent’s failures apparent, the electorate was willing to move past step one and consider the challenger. It did not like what it saw. This isn’t a reflection on Romney; as detailed in a previous post, by this cycle Mitt Romney was little more than a vacillating figurehead for the party. This was a damning of the national party.
Note to Karl Rove and other strategists: being Republican is extremely uncool. In many of the country’s greatest cities (including my current home, New York), it’s nothing less than a social stigma.
Consider Millenials (age 18-29) and gay voters. These are categorizations of people that, given the traditional definition of politics, shouldn’t skew too heavily towards one party or the other in a modern body politic. (What should one’s sexual preference or date of birth have to do with government policy?) But despite the awful atmosphere for the incumbent, they swung heavily for Obama. Some Republicans portray this as voter ignorance: young people are economically illiterate, and gay voters focus too much on an issue not likely to involve presidential involvement.
Lost on Rove, Bill Kristol, et al is that social issues, even if not at the center of a ton of government policy, largely define how voters view the party. And why wouldn’t they? The Republican Party’s convention planks included an extremely conservative abortion policy, a borderline xenophobic immigration policy, myriad references to God and faith, and a ludicrously out of touch view on the definition of marriage:
We reaffirm our support for a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. We applaud the citizens of the majority of States which have enshrined in their constitutions the traditional concept of marriage, and we support the campaigns underway in several other States to do so.
At the party leadership’s behest, Romney and Ryan didn’t talk much about these issues. So what? Why should a gay individual pledge support to a group that openly denies their Constitutional freedom of contract and implicitly despises their way of life? Why should someone with gay friends and coworkers associate with a party that does so? “Sorry for the Romney vote, Bob, but I’m fairly certain you won’t be arrested for marrying your boyfriend.”
Young people will not tolerate a party that speaks of immigrants as if they are hostile intruders and admonishes them for not going to church. The GOP cannot exist as a national party with such attitudes. It must pivot quickly; in so doing it could bolster its credentials as the party of enumerated, limited powers without ostracizing social conservatives by delivering the following message:
“Who you sleep with, where you come from, what you do with your own body…just like how you spend your money and what doctor you see, none of these things, regardless of our personal preferences, are the government’s business.”
The next decades will be extremely challenging for our nation, and there will be plenty of philosophical and policy differences between the two major parties. The government gravy train is about to stop, and decisions about how to best manage the welfare state will be decided in hotly contested elections. The sooner Republicans realize this, the better prepared they will be to win the fights that matter.