What follows are my thoughts written since Wednesday morning.
In the early hours of this morning, after tossing and turning most of the night, I got up and turned on our local television network. How bad was it? I knew, of course, that President-elect Barack Obama had handily defeated my candidate, John McCain. I, further, knew about the many Senate races and a few select House races throughout the country. But, how far had the electoral malaise spread? Did anyone I voted for win? My answer came quickly – there was almost a glee to the broadcaster’s seemingly endless description of this Democrat winning and this Republican losing. When all was said and done, only two Republicans who had my vote were victorious.
What went wrong? In a word, everything. What went right? Nearly nothing.After emerging from the various stages of grief, I started focusing on 2010. Is what we saw a mandate for broad adoption of liberal policies? Was last night the start of a sustainable liberal majority? For a variety of reasons, the answer is clearly “no.” But that doesn’t mean that we, as Republicans, are guaranteed a return to power – frankly, such a return must be earned. In order to right this ship, first, however, we must realistically evaluate what happened last night.
Last night was the result of a “perfect storm” that had been brewing in the American political scene for the better part of the last three years – really since, Democrats were able to demagogue President Bush’s attempts at Social Security reform and the then-Republican congressional majorities retreated from any further aggressive reform agenda. The re-elected President’s capital was squandered amidst an inartful federal response to Katrina, exploding national deficits, a looming foreign policy challenge in Iraq and difficulties in dealing with an increasingly virolent and uncooperative Democrat congressional leadership.
What were the characteristics of this “perfect storm” that gave rise to last night?
There can be little doubt that the context in which all that happened last night was the visceral, and largely undeserved, antipathy towards President George W. Bush – for many on America’s far left this antipathy is more accurately described as hatred. Hatred is clearly undeserved. As pointed out in Mr. Shapiro’s opinion piece in November 5th’s Wall Street Journal, the left’s treatment of George W. Bush has been nothing short of disgraceful. But blaming the left for their ridicule of George W. Bush explains only part of the problem – an equally distasteful by-product of their scorn is the Republican leadership’s abandonment of their party’s own leader. In essence, we became a party of wimps.
According to the far left, now, the war in Iraq should never have occurred. Certainly, war is not a desired executive policy. Despite repeated tirades about the “neo-con” takeovers of the Bush administration, it is more than silly to conclude that an invasion of Iraq was part of a pre-planned policy agenda of this or any other administration. Such a conclusion belies the history of what took place in the first ten months of the Bush presidency which invariably shaped its foreign and domestic policy agenda and its capabilities for the remainder of this administration. Despite the protestations from those in the media cheap seats, principally employed by General Electric – hint, hint, there is no way for those of us looking from afar to adequately gauge the impact which 9/11 had not only on America at large, but the Bush administration in particular.
We seemingly have forgotten the collective call for military action against Iraq, including calls from those who now proudly declare their allegiance to the Democratic Party’s far left fringe. Such calls were made under the auspice that Iraq was the possessor of weapons of mass destruction, which could be used by their rogue dictator or, more dangerously, sold to the highest bidding terrorist, including Al-Quaeda. Democrats quickly sensed a political opportunity when in the days immediately following Baghdad’s takeover there were no weapons of mass destruction found. Then, it became an issue of how soon Democrats could label the invasion of Iraq a mistake for their political gain. It was at this moment that congressional Republicans lost their way and, in the first of what would become multiple acts of betrayal, abandoned President Bush to save their own hide. History shows though that followers never save their hide when they abandon their leader.
This abandonment of President Bush continued and, in fact, worsened through Katrina, failed social security reform, a terrorist insurgency in Iraq and, most recently, in response to the economic malaise which has beset our markets. Abandonment of your leader, without a clear agenda to replace it, is never a pathway to success.
For his part, President Bush did little to advance his position -- in fact, some would say he betrayed the Republican cause as well. Despite repeated calls for more aggressive action to deal with the insurgency in Iraq, President Bush was slow to take up the cause of the “surge.” By the time he finally agreed to this course of action, it was no longer possible to view him as the titular leader on this initiative – this position rightfully fell to Senator McCain and General Petraeus. Compound the difficulties in Iraq, with uncontrolled federal budget deficits, and with a seeming detachment and slow federal response to Katrina, and you have a recipe for political disaster. We saw the first installment of that disaster in the landslide off-year election of 2006 and, now again, in 2008.
Democrats are masters of hyperbole and today’s Republicans are not good fighters. There is something to be said for graciousness, but that doesn’t win elections. When Republicans permitted the Democrats in the last two elections to vilify George Bush, without an effective comeback and without any genuine attempt to circle the wagons, they painted President Bush as worthy of Democrat scorn and painted themselves as largely ineffective and adrift, without principal. Who wants to vote for that? Not me.
Make no mistake – Barack Obama’s election was born in the cauldron of hatred for George W. Bush, enabled largely by the Republican congressional leadership’s abandonment of any semblance of a backbone and cogent legislative agenda, with which the Democrats might be compelled to address and take issue –in the world of politics, when you help create a pariah, don’t be surprised when that pariah is then used against you.
Then, throw into your perfect storm, the simple fact of an economic meltdown, the likes of which this country has not seen in nearly 80 years. Any momentum that John McCain had going into September 15th left the night that the first of the Lehman associates were spotted taking boxes out of their Manhattan offices. Bankruptcy for Lehman, a bailout for AIG, a buy-out for Merrill-Lynch – like a well-choreographed dance, the Wall Street tango was on. Little did we know that it was just getting started. $700 billion later and the entire focus of the campaign shifted to the American economy. The McCain campaign’s response was timid and unsure – in an attempt to demonstrate leadership, Senator McCain suspended his campaign, seemingly to underscore the significance of the issue and the importance of not appearing to play politics with the crisis.
Two things were wrong with the McCain approach to the economic crisis – first, he suspended his campaign to focus his energies on leading the Republican response, perhaps distinct from the administration’s response – only, then he forgot to lead. For all practical purposes, Senator McCain did nothing to lead the Republican response to the crisis – retreating to his northern Virginia home, we saw and heard nothing substantively from John McCain on the issue, other than his reversal of position about attending the first presidential debate and a poorly presented plan for restoring real estate value on defaulted mortgages.
Second, McCain miscalculated the Democrat response to the crisis – apparently, he must have believed that Senator Obama would join forces with him to urge calm, to not politicize the issue. Was that a mistake! The Obama campaign had no misgivings about labeling the crisis the product of Republican deregulation of the financial services industry, knowing full well that the mainstream media would give the Democrats cover for their repeated avoidance of past Republican calls further regulation of their cash-cows, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In other words, the Democrats had no problem seeking political gain from the crisis. Again, we Republicans always seem to forget, when you play with a snake, don’t be surprised when it bites you.
To survive the Perfect Storm, you need a sturdy shelter and a survival plan. In politics, you need a campaign message. The Obama campaign had a message from day 1 – change. Change from what to what? Doesn’t matter. Democrats do a much better job understanding that political persuasion of the masses is often best delivered in sound bites, in quick simple statements which don’t require much more than surface level analysis. Obama’s campaign was about change – that’s it. Didn’t need to be more complicated than change – the American people got it.
Senator McCain’s campaign was about . . . Not to be flippant, but the campaign message shifted from week to week. By the time that Senator McCain finally settled on Reform, Prosperity, Peace, under the moniker of Country First, the campaign had been through repeated iterations of issues, themes and messages seeking that foothold with the American public. He even went so far as to borrow the Obama theme of change for a two or three week period. However, the Obama campaign’s linkage of McCain with Bush made this brand of Republican change a difficult, if not impossible, sell.
The absence of a campaign message was symptomatic of a campaign largely without discipline. But for Steve Schmidt’s emergence in the campaign, it is very likely that the electoral college landslide would have been much worse. It was only after Schmidt introduced substantial discipline to the campaign that we saw any significant improvement in Senator McCain’s poll numbers. Such improvement, however, was not rooted deeply with the American public and, unfortunately, for Senator McCain the aforementioned economic crisis quickly reversed his political fortunes.
The absence of a message and discipline made establishing a ground game difficult – made grassroots activities more complicated. An ineffective groundgame in some states, combined with the en vogue jumping off the McCain ship, displayed by well-known Republican after Republican, *rendered it nearly impossible for Schmidt et al. to generate the Republican turnout *on November 4 that was absolutely necessary to win this election. While turnout at Bush levels still would not have necessarily produced victory in this particular election cycle, there was really little drama left after the polls closed in Pennsylvania and it was clear that Obama had hit his turnout numbers and McCain hadn’t scared his.
Bottom line, McCain campaign missteps explain his loss, but his campaign can’t be and shouldn’t be held responsible for the blood-letting which occurred at the congressional, state and local levels. Republicans uniformly lost because we have stopped being Republicans. Between our lack of spending control, our loss of an ideological compass and certain high-profile violations of the public trust and moral codes, Republicans have painted ourselves as faux-Democrats, the Democrats’ generic equal.
Assume you’re at the grocery store and the name-brand product is the same price as the generic product, which do you buy? You buy the better-advertised, name-brand product. Is it any wonder, given our lost way, that the American public voted for the real Democrats, versus their Republican counterparts, who have repeatedly failed to distinguish themselves in any meaningful way?
Will we be able to right this ship? Is 2008, the coming of a sustainable liberal majority? No.
First, the Perfect Storm can not be replicated. The war in Iraq is going better. George W. Bush will be out of office. The economic crisis is now on Obama’s watch. And, finally, come hell or high water, we will recover some sense of discipline in our candidates, in our public policy and in our actions – let’s put it this way, it can not get any worse.
But, there are other reasons that 2008 will not create a sustainable liberal majority.
The mere fact of Obama’s election may mean that the era of race politics, as we have traditionally known it, is over. Like him or not, Obama now occupies a place in the African-American political scene, which will never again be surrendered to the racially divisive politics of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
Senator Obama’s policies will prove too liberal for the majority of those who label themselves as politically independent. So visceral was the hatred for George W. Bush, even amongst more moderate independents, that the more liberal, some would say socialist, policies were greatly discounted during this campaign. But, now that the campaign is over, those policies will be laid bare, will be analyzed, and will be judged on their relative success or failure in a context that was not present during the campaign. Two principle pieces of legislation will bring this to the forefront of American public scrutiny – and given significant liberal opposition to both proposals, let alone conservative opposition, Obama may quickly be viewed to be overreaching. These two initiatives are the so-called Fairness Doctrine and card check. Nothing will sink this new administration quicker than if these two proposals become center-piece legislative efforts in Obama’s nascent administration.
Change can no longer be used to spur Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans to vote for liberal majorities. When you campaign on change and you win, by necessity, the slogan must be discarded and now likely becomes the mantra of your political opponents.
While a masterful campaigner, Obama must now govern. Governance is where the rubber hits the road – if Obama doesn’t discharge his governance with the same aplumb as he ran his campaign, there is nowhere for his favorability and approval ratings to go but down. Congressional Democrats are a case-study in this phenomenon. As such, the political leash which the American public has given Obama and congressional Democrats is very, very short.
The blind loyalty of the mainstream media will shortly be over. Riddled by criticism, and rightly so, that they were in the tank for the Obama campaign, and facing shrinking revenues making their very survival questionable, the mainstream media can not afford to continue its sycophantic adherence to all things liberal if they hope to compete with bloggers and more conservative news outlets. Albeit, the change will be slow and they will be dragged kicking and screaming to this inevitability, this change will occur.
So, take heart conservative America. This November was terrible . . . awful. And, we helped create the Perfect Storm. But, Perfect Storms come along once every century.
If we respond as we should . . . return America and the Republican party to its long-held values of liberty, freedom, limited government and personal responsibility, then the liberal onslaught of this November will be a mere aberration in America’s political history. Yes, November 4 was historic in and of itself. We should never discount that fact and celebrate it as Americans, but as conservatives we need not accept our new found minority status as our permanent station. As much as our adherence to conservative principals is critical for each of us, it is even more critical for America. Now, let’s get to it.