The Mourning After
Wednesday morning political quarterbacks are like the Monday sports variety, only you hear from the former two days later. Similar to literary critics, the "I told you so" crowd usually stays above the fray and then comes down only to shoot the wounded. With such caveats in mind, we assess the Romney loss and the prospects of an Obama second term.
To begin, a few words might be said about precedent or history. In our lifetime, Bill Clinton was elected twice and now Mrs. Clinton is in the cat bird's seat for 2016. Such omens say as much about the character of the American electorate as they do about the vector of modern American political history.
But history and political memes did not beat Mitt Romney. The challenger and the Republican Party establishment lost this election. There were many mistakes, few of which could be acknowledged before and many of which will probably be rationalized now. Nonetheless, there seem to have been four flaws in the campaign to unseat a mediocre man who should, by any measure of performance, have been beaten easily. Those flaws include, but, are not limited to; a shallow primary pool, defensive campaigning, race, and apathy.
Romney may not have been a good choice to begin with, but, he did win a primary fight if not hearts. Alas, a significant constituency on the Right still had reservations. Prior to the primaries, Mitt Romney was known as a successful father, husband, businessman, and governor. He was also pegged as a moderate.
And it was moderation, the need to be seen as a nice guy that may explain a defensive campaign where the incumbent managed to define the challenger. Obama made the menace of Romney the grand issue of 2012 - and it worked.
Obama successfully defined Romney as a selfish, avaricious Capitalist. True or not, the mud stuck. The Romney response to insult was defense and the answer on issues, especially foreign policy, was often "me too." Unless you play like Notre Dame has this year, defense does not win the big games.
Take the economic malaise as an example. Barack cast Mitt as a job eliminator at home and a job exporter abroad. Romney was, in short, the Grinch who would throw American workers to the wolves; in contrast, Obama ran as the hero who saved 200,000 American jobs. The Republican response was lame and incoherent blather about the Chinese, "fairness," or playing by the rules. A fact attack would have been more helpful.
The GM chairman has been touting China since the automotive bailout; bragging about what Detroit has done for China, the Chinese worker, and Chinese jobs. Indeed, since the bailout, GM has created five to ten times more jobs in China than may have been saved in the US. None of this factual ammunition was used by Romney, nor were the available video clips of Dan Akerson celebrating the move of GM operations, including advanced research, from America to China.
At the eleventh hour Mister Romney's domestic message was undone also by weather and, again, passivity. Katrina was famously politicized by Democrats and Media allies and used to beat George Bush to a pulp. Now comes hurricane Sandy and an erstwhile "ally," Republican Governor Christy, embraces, literally hugs Obama as looters roam neighborhoods still without power or heat on a frosty voting day. Mr. Christy's timing and rapture were more than unfortunate. With friends such as those in New Jersey, Romney didn't need many enemies. Politics is a game of flinches.
Race has always been the invisible elephant of Obama politics. Starting with his first campaign for president, Barack has played the race card like a violin. In front of white audiences, he's the proud grandson of a white WWII veteran. Yet his demeanor with blacks is something else.
For twenty years or more, he sat in church and listened to the demagoguery of Jeremiah Wright, colleague to Louis Farrakhan, a virulent black racist. If Wright was right for so long, why is he persona non grata at the White house?
Obama has chosen to define himself as a black man, yet has done little to address, no less bridge, the racial divide that he personifies. Black voting statistics reinforce the hold that race has on the black community and other minorities. For Romney, race was an opportunity missed; an opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of American racial attitudes and exhibit courage on a sensitive issue. If Obama chose to define himself as white, given his record to date, he would be "one and done" today.
The reticence of politicians to be candid, about sensitive issues like race, speaks to the most powerful force in American politics; apathy. The challenger's moderation may be a subtle variant of apathy. In private moments, Romney often exhibits moral courage. His commentary on growing American dependency is an example. Truth, as Harry Truman insisted, is often the best public argument too.
When politicians walk back a fact, however; voters get queasy. "Business as usual" is a message that Romney reinforced by not separating himself clearly from statist folly and the entitlements movement.
In sum, Mitt Romney may not be mean enough for the big leagues. American politics is a contact sport. In many ways, Obama and Romney are similar; each look the part, congenial family men; yet, both are in over their heads. One has a job beyond his abilities and the other is unable to get the job he wants.
There's not much left to say except congratulations to Barack Obama for pulling another rabbit out of one of his many hats. Alas, the American political horizon is still obscured by smoke. The burn rather than turn crowd gets another four years; and America, like Europe, will continue to dance between inertia and fiscal Armageddon.
And good luck to Mister Romney in his next endeavor. He may want amend that Roman adage: "Moderation in all things." Mitt might now say; moderation in all things - especially moderation.
G. Murphy Donovan writes frequently about politics, military affairs, and national security.