Monday, November 19, 2012

The Republican Divide

In 1961, after the United States’ disastrous defeat of its covert attempt of a counter-revolution against Fidel Castro, newly-inaugurated President John Kennedy famously said, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”  After this November’s election, Kennedy’s words seem highly relevant.

Mitt Romney and his Republican Party lost.  And lost big.  It was a big loss not necessarily by the absolute numbers.  Republicans got 48% of the vote, and in a number of “swing states” they lost by razor-thin margins.  But the end result was devastating in the poplar marketplace of perceptions and expectations.  With a weak economy, the incumbent’s base seemingly “disappointed,” a high number of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats up for election, and a chorus of right-wing billionaires ready to ante up unheard of sums of money to the cause, “How can we lose?” was the overriding belief.

But lose they did.  They lost the presidency to the incumbent, losing all but one of the swing states and substantially the Electoral College by 332-206.  They not only failed to gain the Senate but went down two more seats.  They lost half-dozen seats in the house (though still retained control of that chamber).  It was an across-the-board rejection of the party, its candidates and its presidential nominee.  And so the orphan of defeat is now adrift, barely visible within the ensuing sea of rationales, excuses, and finger-pointing.

The loss was partly attributable to Obama being a more formidable candidate than Republicans / Romney anticipated.  A steadily improving economy; an overwhelming “turn-out-the-vote” ground game; targeted and effective advertising to the current demographic profile; a genuine record of accomplishment; a consistent set of beliefs and principles espoused by the candidate; all served to pull the rug out from under the Romney strategy.

But whatever the strengths of the incumbent, they were matched (or surpassed) over the long campaign by the substantial weaknesses of Romney.  Just being “against Obama” was not enough of a campaign basis, combined with his lack of connection with the average voter.  Even his Republican base never warmed to him, giving him the nomination only because of an almost comical pool of primary opponents.  This was followed by a seemingly never-ending string of missteps and misstatements: the botched overseas trip; the premature Libyan criticisms; the constant “clarifications” issued by his campaign staff of his impromptu comments; his “let the auto industry go bankrupt” posture; and, most notoriously, the “47%” denigration of the voters.

Combined with the Romney weaknesses were several years of consistent hostility by the Republican Party to gays, Latinos, women, African-Americans – all growing electoral demographics.  Add in the perception of the extremism of Tea Party advocates with “flaky” candidates that have clearly cost Republicans the capturing of the Senate; a consistent “legislative NO” and “my way is the only way” attitudes expressed by Republican Congresspersons, and an assault on voting access in many states solely for political advantage.  With that combination, you have a Party that is not perceived as welcoming to the very voters needed for electoral success.  How the Republican Party responds to this outcome will be very important to the Party’s relevance, our ability to address the many issues of our day, and therefore our collective future.

Republicans can be angry and retrench kicking and screaming even deeper into the hole of defeat, blaming everyone else for not seeing the rightness of their cause.  Or they can thoughtfully figure out what went wrong, learn from the results, and meaningfully and honestly adjust accordingly over time.  So far, both options are being pursued by the various players.  Romney has blamed his loss on Obama’s “gifts” to the voters (reminiscent of his “47%” stupidity); others have blamed everything from Hurricane Sandy, Chris Christi’s praise for Obama’s relief efforts, the villains of “urban voters,” and of course, the “liberal media.”  Karl Rove is dancing fast and furious to explain to his mega-donors why $300M did not buy anything that was promised.  And John McCain embarrassingly continues to try to spin much noise about the Benghazi tragedy in a losing attempt to find a new political relevance.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the discussion, thoughtful Republicans like former Bush advisor Karen Hughes threatened to “cut out the tongue of any white, gray-haired male who talks about rape ever again”; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal pronounced that “Republicans need to stop being the stupid Party … we need to end dumbed-down conservatism by putting a stop to offensive, bizarre comments … and stop insulting the intelligence of the voters”; and former First Lady Barbara Bush simply observed, “The people spoke.  Move on.  Get over it.”

Whether the Republican Party will face up to their shortcomings and the new realities of America, or continue to run headlong into a brick wall of its own making, is unclear.  There is a legitimate conservative program and message that could be of benefit and interest to Americans.  But it is not the program and message that has been coming from today’s Republican Party.

The night after the election, commentator Rachael Maddow observed the significance of the outcome, and Republicans’ disbelief of it, and their history of continuous negative disbelief in our American reality, as follows: “Ohio really did go to Obama last night, he really did win.  He really was born in Hawaii, and he really is, legitimately, President of the United States – again.  And the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not make up a fake unemployment rate last month.  And the Congressional Research Service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy.  And the polls were not skewed to oversample Democrats.  And [pollster] Nate Silver was not making up fake projections about the election to make conservatives feel bad; Nate Silver was doing math.

And climate change is real.  And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes.  And evolution is a thing!  And Benghazi was an attack on us, not a scandal by us.  And nobody is taking away anyone’s guns.  And taxes have not gone up.  And the deficit is dropping, actually.  And Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.  And the moon landing was real.  And FEMA is not building concentration camps.  And UN observers are not taking over Texas.  And moderate reforms of the regulations on the insurance industry and the financial services industry in this country are not the same thing as communism.”  Maddow posed the fundamental question for Republicans: are you going to continue to be exemplified by the fringe, the conspiracists, the lightweights, and those who think leadership is about who can simply say the most outrageous things?  Or will you meet Americans where they truly live – in that broad space both just slightly left and slightly right of the middle?

In 2008, Americans were sick of eight years of Republican governance and wars, and overwhelmingly elected a sweeping Democratic majority.  These Democrats thought they had a license to do anything, and spun the country Left too far and too fast.  In 2010 the voters “corrected” that excess by swinging back to the Republicans.  And those Republicans responded to the Right just as stupidly as the 2008 Democrats of before.  So in 2012 the voters had to correct the politicians again.  The vast majority of Americans are not interested in extreme politics.  They want working governance, from intelligent and reasonable people, providing effective solutions derived from working together for everyone’s benefit.  Which party, which politicians, are finally going to understand this?