Why We Lost: The Big Picture
Critics of the Republican loss in the presidential election, which returned the status quo to Washington for another four years, have spent a number of weeks analyzing the reasons for the debacle. Pundits have put forth demographics, messaging, the Obama turnout machine, and a whole host of other assertions to show why Republicans must go back to the drawing board and reinvent themselves. No doubt this sifting process will continue for months to come. Though John F. Kennedy's oft-quoted dictum that "victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan" still holds true, it appears the orphans are having a national convention asking themselves, "Who's your daddy?" Now that Mitt Romney appears to be fading from the scene, Republicans have not quite decided either who will come off their fairly strong bench to lead the party, or what the Republican message for the future will be.
In light of this much needed self-criticism, we must remember that elections are almost always about big ideas. At least that was what Ronald Reagan and Republicans told themselves. If so, we have a problem. The big Republican ideas of the last forty years have been exactly two: peace through strength abroad and free enterprise at home. These were the twin themes of the Reagan Revolution reiterated again and again by Republican candidates to win elections. But now, these ideas not only do not work for us. They have turned against us and are actually working to defeat us. How did this happen and what can be done about it?
But first we must understand how the two big Republican ideas came to the forefront. In 1980, the U.S. economy was stagnating. The misery index, a depressing combination of unemployment and inflation statistics created economic problems, 20% interest rates, American "malaise," a word Jimmy Carter never actually used, and a sense that America was adrift. Abroad, the Soviet Union rolled into Afghanistan without firing a shot. Jimmy Carter inexplicably responded by punishing U.S. Olympians, exiting the 1980 Moscow games. Iranian radicals held Americans hostage for 454 days, while OPEC created long gas lines which frustrated America's sense of energy entitlement. Carter nattered away about America's "inordinate fear of communism." When the attempted rescue of the hostages failed in the desert due to faulty equipment and planning, it seemed as if the epitaph for the Carter administration had already been written.
Into this breach stepped Ronald Reagan with a twofold message. First, at home, "Government is not the solution. Government is the problem." Reagan thundered that the "federal government is spending money like a drunken sailor. The only difference is the drunken sailor is spending his money. The federal government is spending yours." The message was simple. Free the American economy from high taxes, waste, and government spending and it will take off. With the lowering of secular interest rates providing a tailwind over the next decade, it did. Reagan was the new Calvin Coolidge. "The business of America was business," once again and America thrived. Patriotism surged and employers hired millions of workers. When Reagan survived an assassin's bullet with humor and aplomb, it appeared that America, in the words of Thomas Paine at Valley Forge, "had it in our power to begin the world over again."
Now critics of Reagan will say he was unserious about economic conservatism because deficits grew under his administration. But the question was why? In Reagan's view, there was a much more important long-range goal than immediate deficit reduction, namely the defeat of Soviet communism and its eventual demise worldwide. Besides, according to supply-side economics, a robust economy would eventually either greatly reduce or eliminate deficits. It eventually did under the Clinton administration. Moreover, the opening of Eastern European markets to American goods created a once-in-a century "peace dividend" that accrued under Clinton. Reagan believed the Soviet economy was on the verge of collapse and with removal to the "ash heap of history" its hegemony over Eastern Europe would end. This was one reason Reagan refused the deal on disarmament offered by Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986. To do so would have let the Soviets off the hook and cushioned their fall, something Reagan was loath to do. But not even Reagan could have imagined how soon he would be proved right about Soviet communism.
The Reagan doctrine "peace through strength" was the second big idea. The notion was if the U.S. had by far the strongest military in the world, we would rarely have to prove it. In fact, Reagan never got us into a war of any significance. He bombed Gaddafi's compound and met the takeover of Grenada by communist forces with a decisive reversal. But the big war was a one that was never fought, the "Cold War." When the British fought a hot war over the Falklands, Reagan at first remained infuriatingly neutral before supporting the British side. What are we to learn? Very simply that the hoped-for result is "peace through strength" not "war through strength." The goal was peace, not endless conflict. Why is this important?
It is here we begin to understand how Obama and the Democrats won in 2012. Instead of the Republican Party being the party of peace, in too many minds it has become the party of war. Electorates do not like parties of war and tend to turn them out. Once upon a time, Democrats got us into war and Republicans got us out of war. Kennedy and Johnson got us into Vietnam, Nixon got us out. Truman got us into the Korean conflict. Eisenhower presided over the truce. Carter lost the hostages. Reagan got them out. This was the recent pattern, until the war on terror. Legitimate or not, Republicans got us into both Iraq and Afghanistan, both problematic conflicts filled with ups and downs, uncertainties, loss of life, debilitating injuries, corruption, and off-budget expenditures. Republicans are supposed to believe in limited powers. Though we believe in a strong military, we are chary of too much power in any government arena. Like it or not, believing the cause was just or not, this has cost Republicans.
Iraq and Afghanistan may have been a necessary price to pay, but it did allow one great political advantage for the Democrats. It allowed them and Obama to ride in as the "solution" to those evil Republicans. Bush got us into a wrongheaded war in Iraq? Obama would get us out. Bush opened Guantanamo Bay? Obama would close it. (Even wrongheaded intentions count as actions for Democrats). Bush couldn't get bin Laden? Obama would. I didn't matter that Obama used many of the intelligence gathering techniques he formerly opposed in doing so. He would take credit for the results. Every business in America markets itself as a source of "solutions" for consumer problems. Obama's advantage was that he offered the solution of "peace" in return for war. That is a huge advantage in a war-weary country, especially one that has economic problems and deficits. Never mind that the money will not be returned to the people and will be spent in Washington. At least it is coming home. That was the sales pitch and it was successful in two campaigns. It also allowed Obama to temper his hard domestic leftism with reason and balance, further shielding him from criticism.
I mentioned that Americans do not like war. They often fire war presidents. Bush 41 came off the Gulf War with a 90% approval rating and lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. Was it only the "stealth recession" that caused Bush's defeat? This is something of a Western tradition: Churchill was fired by the British people after World War II. They chose others to install the British National Health Service. A little further back, King David was not allowed to build the temple because he was a "man of war." Solomon was praised for his wisdom and wealth, but presided over a nation put together by his father. After World War II, and the dropping of the two atomic bombs, Truman almost lost to Dewey in his only run for the presidency. At the very least, people and parties with blood on their hands, like Churchill, are deemed unworthy to oversee the mundane tasks of installing the welfare state.
The point is: a major advantage Republicans possessed, "peace through strength," demonstrated over the last generation is now gone. And until and unless the American people perceive Democrats once again as the party that gets us into trouble abroad, (we may not have to wait too long for that) the Republican advantage here is now lost. If current budget talks fail, the "strength" part of the deal may be lost as well, as the "fiscal cliff" will entail substantial cuts to the U.S.
But the domestic side is where Republicans have really come a cropper. The message of free enterprise can only stand in an economy that is producing jobs, prosperity, and upward mobility. None of these are happening right now. This is the "crisis" referred to by Democrats as something that "cannot be wasted." Why? Because it allows them to reverse Reagan's famous dictum that government is the problem. For Democrats and the unemployed, underemployed, and suffering, government becomes the solution once again. Just as the Reagan majority praised business for the blessings of the "city on a hill," so now any criticism of the "food stamp president" is met with cries of closet racism. How dare anyone criticize the golden benevolence of government that stands between so many Americans and destitution? When PBS runs the series "The Dust Bowl" praising the role of the federal government in rescuing farmers, why would anyone think government was a problem? I have heard anecdote after anecdote recently of jobs going unfilled because they cannot attract workers at $12 an hour. Has our own government disincentivized us with benefits? Has the shame of government assistance been removed?
But the worst part of free enterprise's demise is the portrayal of it as fundamentally immoral. Mitt Romney was portrayed during the recent campaign as an economic vulture who was "not one of us." During the 2008 campaign, Michelle Obama blew her cover by telling people they should not go into business but should spend their efforts in the nonprofit world. During the Obama care debate, Nancy Pelosi articulated a world where artists, writers, and poets should be free to pursue their passions supported by federally provided healthcare. It did not matter much that Republicans argued that the financial crisis was orchestrated by Democrats in Congress overseeing Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, or that the crony capitalism of Wall Street is no longer the free enterprise bastion it once was. Democrats and Obama were able to repeat ad nauseum that the system failed, that we cannot return to the wrongheaded policies of the past and that its essence is "you are on your own." The message "you didn't build that" should have cost Obama the election. Instead most of the electorate shrugged and voted for him anyway.
Republicans are in a pickle. The unshakeable American belief in free-market economics tempered by mostly-private compassion has been shaken and displaced. We should have seen this coming under George W. Bush. When Karl Rove pointed out to him that unless he endorsed Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit, that he would lose the election, what was Bush to do? Never mind that it actually came in under budget or that its secret was competition between drug companies that drove down prices. The reality was that for the first time in our history, both parties had endorsed government as the seat of compassion. The race was on: not to ask what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you. If the electorate is going to elect a party of bigger and bigger government, they know which one is better, the Democrats. It was an argument Republicans were destined to lose, much like the me-too Republicans of the 1970's who were lost in the wilderness until Reagan woke them up.
So what do we do? First of all, have a little patience. There have been many false narratives in American history that have gone the way of the dodo bird. The Dred Scott decision, FDR spending the nation out of the Depression, communism as a viable alternative, the "Great Society," the "holiday from history" and on it goes. The world about to dawn in 2013 finds the country in as dire straits as anyone can remember, with the current administration offering no answers and digging a bigger hole. Republicans are debating whether to give Democrats the rope to hang themselves or to fight them on principle. Anyone with any intelligence knows what Democrats are proposing, namely higher taxes and more spending cannot work. Can the Democrats win the White House or control of Congress in election after election with big turnouts of "low-information" voters? When will the electorate be intelligent enough to recognize the Democrat agenda cannot work? Time will tell, if we still have it.
Here is the point. On the domestic side, we must make a dramatic case that free enterprise is in fact much more moral and successful than a government-controlled command economy. Free Americans will not only feed themselves but also each other much better than the nanny state. If Republicans can make that case and earn back the trust of the American people, they can and will lead again. They will probably not get the chance until the current regime collapses of its own weight, which it will surely do in time.
On the international scene, the Obama narrative is already collapsing. The happy talk of reset buttons and sitting down with terrorists to talk things out has produced an unstable Middle East unsure of America's resolve. Americans elected and re-elected Obama to get us out of war. Now both parties are embracing an orderly exit from Afghanistan, though with different concerns. The question now becomes what America's vision of the world and itself is to be. Obama's is a hoped-for orderly demise to a nation among many nations, complete with required reading about "Greek exceptionalism." Republicans know the world cannot be governed safely without American leadership and strength. Republicans must remember both sides of the peace through strength mantra and remember two things: there is sometimes an electoral cost on the home front to war and American weakness invites aggression from its enemies. President Obama knows the former and is the process of learning the latter. For all these reasons, the Republican Party will rise again for one simple reason: the electorate will ask us to lead again.
Jay Haug is author of Beyond the Flaming Sword and can be reached at cjcwguy@ gmail.com.