FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
The Fall of the House of Romney
I Did, In Fact, Tell You So
Let’s not sugarcoat this: last night was a bitter loss for Republicans and conservatives, all the worse because the presidential race – like a number of the key Senate races – was eminently winnable, and down the stretch a great many of us believed we were going to win it. I’ll return (hopefully this week) to the poll-reading question of why that was wrong, after more of the final numbers are in. But first, a look at Romney’s loss and some initial thoughts on where we go from here.
I Told You So. I Told You So, I Told You So, I Told You So.
I was wrong about the polls the past three weeks. But I was right about Romney the past six years, and as it turned out, vindicated my original view in the primaries that – while Romney could win a landslide race if the bottom dropped out of Obama – he could not win not a close race: “Romney is a terrible general election candidate, who will need a lot of good fortune and outside help to end up winning, and…just about anybody will be able to beat Obama in those circumstances.” (Follow more of the links collected here and here for the full archive of my 2007-08 and 2011-12 columns on Romney’s flaws as a candidate).
That’s exactly what happened. The economy limped to a slightly better state by September, but never did turn up significantly; the headline unemployment rate was no better on Election Day than it had been when Obama took office. Polls never showed Obama with particularly robust job approval, in particular on the economy; his coalition narrowed and he lost independent voters (exit polls say by 5 points nationally, narrower than the spread in nearly all the pre-election polls but wider than any deficit for a winning presidential candidate since Carter in 1976). The foreign policy crisis of the fall in North Africa didn’t end up really affecting the race much, and it’s hard to say whether the other big external event (Hurricane Sandy) did (more on that below). In short, nothing blew the race open. At this writing, Romney’s loss in the national popular vote is narrower than John Kerry’s in 2004, and his losses in several key states were close ones – perhaps a point in Florida (not yet called), 2 points in Ohio, 3 in Virginia, 4 in Colorado, 5 in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, 6 in Iowa and Nevada, 7 in Wisconsin.
All of which is a way of saying that Obama – even moreso than Bush in 2004 – was still in a position to be taken, by the right candidate. But as I’ve said for years, ideas don’t run for president; people do. Romney wasn’t that candidate, and his loss was due in very significant part to problems particular to Romney. You still can’t beat somebody with nobody.
You can’t really fault the execution. The selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate was Romney’s boldest move, and while Ryan was unable to deliver his home state, there’s not much reason to think he cost Romney anything or that the outcome would have been different with, say, Rob Portman or Bob McDonnell on the ticket. The final six weeks of the campaign were about the best you could expect from Mitt Romney, with one exception (his fumble of a clear line of attack on Benghazi in the second debate): he turned in a strong performance in the first debate and was generally solid through the following two, and his campaign raised a ton of cash and generated a lot of enthusiasm down the stretch run. He was, day in and day out, the best Mitt Romney we’ve seen.
The problems with Romney were, rather, his built-in weaknesses as a candidate and the strategic choices that followed from them. Romney is, as I have consistently noted, an outstanding man – smart, accomplished, tireless, enthusiastic, and of unimpeachable personal character. But his political weaknesses were the same they always were, the same I warned of in the primaries (with one exception: his Mormon faith didn’t seem to hurt him too much with evangelical Christians). He remained a poor political communicator with no political principles, and that meant he was stuck selling himself and his reading of the landscape, rather than selling ideas. He was particularly hamstrung by his inability – unique within the Republican Party – to mount a convincing root-and-branch critique of Obamacare, having signed a nearly identical plan in Massachusetts. He might have benefited from the Supreme Court doing his job for him by striking down the individual mandate, but the Court upheld everything but the overreaching changes to Medicaid, and Romney’s campaign went off the rails from that date (June 28), not really recovering any momentum until the Ryan pick. He was never a convincing social/cultural populist. He continued to be prone to painful gaffes as he’d been for years, the worst being the infamous 47% video.
In other ways, Romney predictably lacked ways to distinguish himself from Obama and connect with voters. His biography marked him as a business success, but also as a guy without any sort of inspiring narrative of overcoming adversity, and Bain Capital turned out to be more of a liability than an asset, especially with the white blue-collar voters in the Midwest who have never really warmed to Obama. His governorship was too short, too hamstrung by a veto-proof Democratic legislative majority and too overshadowed by Romneycare to produce much in the way of governing accomplishments to run on.
As I noted in the primaries, Romney was the first moderate Republican to run without a serious background in national security or foreign policy since Tom Dewey, and that meant he lacked the gravitas to do more than tread water on foreign policy. His foreign trip over the summer – while overstated by his critics – was not a P.R. success. With Obama having one signature national security accomplishment (the death of bin Laden) to his name and uninterested in engaging in the kind of ideological debate on national security that characterized his campaign against McCain, that left Romney confined to the domestic sphere to score all his points.
And the one area where I felt Romney had gone too far to the right in the 2008 and 2012 primaries – immigration, on which he relentlessly attacked Giuliani, McCain, Brownback, Huckabee, Perry, Gingrich and others from the right – burned his bridges with Hispanic voters, requiring him to focus entirely on maximizing his share of white voters not already ideologically wedded to the Democrats, an unnecessary self-inflicted wound. That’s a mistake we as a party cannot afford to repeat in the future; avoiding it was one of my chief reasons for opposing Romney twice.
Unable to run a strong positive campaign on his record, ideas, personality, biography, or identity politics, that left running on a concrete platform. But while Romney rolled out a number of specific policy proposals, he generally preferred to campaign on general frameworks, and depend on the voters trusting him to fill in the blanks in negotiations with Congress. This can, on occasion, be an effective formula for an otherwise-attractive statewide candidate (it’s how Chris Christie got elected) and can work as a governing strategy if you get elected doing it, but it’s generally a poor way to approach a national campaign, especially for a candidate like Romney who didn’t have a lot of the voters’ trust to start with. I detailed before how Romney ended up wasting a lot of the summer getting pounded on the ambiguities in his tax plan. Romney’s unwillingness to run on a more detailed-yet-concisely-summarizable plan was visibly frustrating to Ryan, who made his name in Congress in large part due to his insistence that the GOP had to offer its own policy proposals. You could tell it pained Ryan not to be able to offer up more specific, numbers-based answers to questions.
This flies in the face of what George W. Bush did as a candidate – and while there’s plenty to debate in the Bush legacy, he’s the only Republican to win a presidential election in the past two decades, so he was doing something right. Put simply, Bush had principled positions. Bush was governor of Texas for six years, in which he built a governing record; he then ran nationally on a detailed policy platform nearly identical to his Texas record, got elected and enacted it into law. And even lacking eloquence as a public speaker, Bush effectively communicated the outlines of his proposals through concise description and endless repetition (remember the calculator on Bush’s website that showed how much money you’d save with the Bush tax cuts? You can do that when your tax plan is fully developed and easy to understand and implement). Bush may have grown in office as Commander-in-Chief, but on domestic policy, his principles, record, rhetoric and platform were consistent and enduring. When George W. Bush said what he meant to do, people knew where he stood and believed him. That – and not Romney’s flip-flopping history and strategic ambiguity – is the model for how to become the next Republican president.
Romney and Obama made opposite strategic choices in how and when to spend their money, in part driven by the fact that Romney had to win an expensive primary first. Obama spent a ton of money over the summer doing the big thing you need to do against a non-incumbent: defining Romney in the eyes of voters before Romney could do it himself. Romney, by contrast, held a lot of his money to the end, banking on making a big late surge.
This, too, looks now like a bad strategic choice. One reason is Hurricane Sandy. It’s clear that the superstorm knocked Romney off the campaign trail and the front pages for a few days and let Obama collect a lot of plaudits (totally untethered from the miserable actual performance of the federal government in responding to the storm). Romney never looked as good in the national polls after the storm as he had before. That doesn’t mean the storm actually changed any votes, let alone enough to make a difference (right now, it’s hard to tell one way or the other, although Phil Klein notes that late polling found huge approval numbers for Obama on the storm compared to weak ones on issues like the economy). The more immediate point is that Romney’s strategy of hoarding cash for the final sprint ignored the possibility of a large unexpected event dominating the final few news cycles in the middle of early voting.
Nominating Romney was a bad idea, never defensible on any ground other than the argument that the alternatives were worse. His campaign did nothing to advance the popularity of conservative ideas he didn’t believe in, missed opportunities to attack Obama over things Romney did believe in, and never had a compelling personal story to tell. Mitt Romney will be remembered as a good man, but a bad politician, and we should know better than to nominate his like again.
We Need Better Screeners
The problem of having a poor front man ran deeper yesterday than just Romney. Across the Senate races, Republicans lost for a variety of reasons (not least the turnout effect from the presidential contest) – but high on the list was far fewer good candidates and far more self-destructive ones than in 2010.
The Tea Party has done a good job of purging one kind of Republican, what you might call the Total Squish – the Republican who just offers nothing on any issue to Republican voters. But to my mind, there are three other species of candidate that we need to do a better job of vetting and avoiding in the primaries, both national and statewide:
1) The Clueless Rich Guy: The wealthy or self-funded candidate with little or no political experience, no firm principles and, as a result, often an undue reliance on political consultants. Romney was not the only candidate of this species – Linda MacMahon also failed in Connecticut for a second consecutive cycle. Rookie politicians aren’t all bad (see Ron Johnson, for example), but as a group they make a lot of mistakes, and wealthy ones are often poor messengers for our ideas.
2) The Pulled Hand Grenade So-Con: Social conservatives are a crucial part of the Republican coalition, and I’d be the last person to want to run them out of the party. But it takes a high level of self-delusion to avoid the fact that candidates like Todd Akin simply have no clue how bad their pronouncements sound to voters outside their corner of the base – and in Akin’s case, he won the nomination over two equally plausible alternatives who would have beaten Claire McCaskill. Richard Mourdock, unlike Akin, had won statewide races and didn’t have a real record of saying things that would set off alarm bells – plus he won his primary against an incumbent far past his sell-by date – but one poor answer in a debate finished him. Social conservatives as a group need to accept the fact that communication and tone matter; people will respect your issue stances, but not if you seem to them like a frightening extremist. We need to find better ways of identifying people who just won’t fly with the general electorate before it’s too late.
3) The Retread: Two of the failed Senate candidates (Tommy Thompson and George Allen) were excellent statewide candidates…in the 90s. But much like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, they found it hard to adjust to the current political environment. Voters looking for change are a lot less likely to pull the lever for a guy who has been out of the fight that long.
Exit The Fat Man
The 2016 sweepstakes will start painfully early in both parties, but one thing already seems likely: Chris Christie is finished already as a national candidate.
Christie’s a great governor, who richly deserves re-election next year. He’s been a great spokesman for the need for fiscal sanity at the state level. But 2012 was his moment to go national, and he missed it. He endorsed Romney early, and pushed harder (and in a more aggressively negative posture against Romney’s critics) than almost any other elected official in the primaries. His profile as a moderate Northeastern governor will almost surely strike 2016 primary voters as a replay of what didn’t work in 2012, regardless of his dissimilarities from Romney. (Having lost with moderates in 2012, 2008, 1996 and 1992, primary voters will be even more desperate to run someone who can credibly be called a conservative in 2016). And Christie’s embrace of Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy, right at the crescendo of a bitter, narrowly-lost election, will stick in the craw of partisans for a long time. A successful second term in New Jersey may tempt Christie to run, but I have to think he’ll have prohibitive problems getting through a primary, and Christie’s personality makes him a poor fit for a VP candidate.
Who will be the frontrunners? It’s too early to rule out dark-horse governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, New Mexico’s Susanna Martinez or Indiana’s newly-elected Mike Pence (who considered a run in 2012 before deciding to get out of DC), but besides Christie the A-list remains three names: Ryan, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio. The relative closeness of yesterday’s outcome means Ryan doesn’t emerge from Romney’s failure as fatally damaged goods, and he’ll return to the House with an elevated profile. Jindal offers the most distance in a lot of ways from Romney, and is in fact the top option who endorsed one of Romney’s opponents (Rick Perry) and only settled behind Romney when the nomination race was over. And Rubio, of course, offers the prospect of the nation’s first Hispanic president. We’ll have much more to discuss on all of them as the next two years unfold the potential landscape before the 2016 contest begins in earnest this time in 2014.
Whither The Party?
Many commentators will now rush to declare Republicans an endangered species and pin the blame for the party’s woes on conservative ideas. When Ryan was added to the ticket, for example, there was much talk that the Obama campaign would sink Romney by tying him to the unpopular House GOP. But as it turned out, the House GOP fared a lot better than the presidential or Senate tickets, losing seats but easily retaining its majority, and we still have a commanding lead in state Governorships. Obama’s ‘permanent majority’ coalition is actually razor-thin and couldn’t retake the House even with its vaunted voter-turnout operation. And now, Obama enters his second term, which are hardly ever better than the first; Republicans are no more doomed by the prospect of an Obama second term than Democrats were by the Bush and Nixon second terms, or even Republicans after the Clinton and LBJ second terms. I don’t ascribe to the theory that anybody should ever want to lose elections, but just as with his first term, Obama’s second term offers increasing opportunities to frustrate and splinter his coalition, further alienate independent voters and bleed job approval, factors that won’t bode well for Democrats in 2014 and 2016. My concern is not for the future of the party, but the country, as four more years gives Obama a lot more time to place increasing numbers of issues outside the reach of democratic self-government, either through judicial activism or inter-generational entitlement programs that are fiscally nearly impossible to unwind.
That’s not to say Republicans should do nothing to re-evaluate our agenda. I remain convinced, for example, that the party needs to find a moderate middle ground on immigration. But at the end of the day, the 2012 election was a failure of candidates, not of ideas.