2012 was supposed to be a comeback year for conservatives. The expansion of the Tea Party Movement, a long and tumultuous Republican primary season, and a glut of campaign spending in the wake of Citizens United v. FEC were all supposed to culminate in a GOP take-back of the White House. By almost all accounts, though, the night of November 6th turned dark for conservative republicanism. Where did it all go wrong?
Conservatives had good reason to be optimistic: the abject failure of Barack Obama’s economic policies is no secret. Obama has presided over the slowest post-recession recovery in United States history. The unemployment rate is an embarrassing 7.9 percent–higher than when the president took office. Household income in the United States is lower now than it was during the Bush recession. The number of Americans in the workforce is at a 30-year low. GDP has been growing at a paltry 2 percent.
How could Americans be so enamored with the president, given his abysmal record? How could an able challenger such as Mitt Romney not be able to clinch victory?
One possible answer is that President Obama enjoyed a substantial incumbency advantage. It is a well documented phenomenon that incumbent politicians enjoy advantages in both name recognition and fundraising. These benefits are most pronounced in state and local elections, where incumbents often end up serving several consecutive terms. In presidential elections, however, name recognition and fundraising efforts are usually so great for each candidate that incumbency advantages are nearly erased, and a few incumbent presidents have been defeated during the last 40 years.
Some conservative writers, as well as leftist pundits trying to portray the conservative movement as defeated and dejected, have explained this outcome through shifting demographics. They claim that the left is the new “silent majority” in this country, and that so many people have been captivated by the promises of big government and the welfare state that any politician praising a culture of individual sovereignty and personal responsibility simply cannot win. This doesn’t seem entirely plausible, though: Mitt Romney garnered almost half of the popular vote, and conservatism consistently polls as the nation’s most popular ideological faction. Also, John McCain received around a million more votes in 2008 than Romney did in 2012. Those voters didn’t all vanish into thin air, and it’s hard to believe they would vote for Barack Obama’s re-election.
I do not think the reason for Romney’s loss last Tuesday can be traced to external phenomena such as those aforementioned. Rather, it stems from his own qualities as a candidate and politician. To illustrate this point, let us look at another election between an incumbent Democrat president and a Republican challenger during a period of great economic stress.
The year of 1980 and the election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan share many parallels with today. Like Barack Obama, Carter had served to the American people what Reagan called an “altogether indigestible economic stew: one part inflation, one part high unemployment, one part recession, one part runaway taxes, one part deficit spending, seasoned with an energy crisis.” In some ways, the economic malaise of 1980 was worse than that of today; in some ways it was not as bad. Regardless, Reagan was able to defeat Carter in a landslide of not only the electoral college vote, but the popular vote as well.
With such striking similarities between 1980 and 2012, a difference in election results ultimately boils down to a difference between candidates. One striking difference we see between Ronald Reagan and Mitt Romney is in their particular style of politicking.
Ronald Reagan told a story to the American people. It wasn’t an anecdote or a parable–the kinds of stories for which Reagan is most famous. Rather, it was a narrative, one built around an ideal. It was not an espousal of principles, but of values. Reagan told a story of the self-sufficient man, a man independent and free to pursue his own happiness. It was a story about what life could be like without government interference. Ronald Reagan’s metaphor of a “shining city upon a hill” encapsulated his vision of a society in which mutual cooperation, and not force, cultivated the progress of civilization.
Mitt Romney’s strategy during the election of 2012 was very different. Romney saw the similarities between 1980 and 2012, and incorrectly assumed that the sheer ineptitude of his opponent would be enough to sway voters to his side. To him, it followed that anything he did during the campaign to draw attention away from his opponent and toward himself would be inherently detrimental. As a result, Romney avoided putting forth his own ideas and principles, and used vague terms like “American Dream,” “freedom,” and “hard work,” which evoke warm emotions of patriotism within an audience.
We must remember that Mitt Romney was running for President of the United States. Anyone seeking that office must hold some fundamental views on the role of government. On one hand, Ronald Reagan’s narrative allowed voters to connect his governing principles with a moral endgame: voters were able to see the necessity of small, limited government in reaching that “shining city upon a hill.” On the other hand, Romney’s rhetorical slogans offered nothing on that regard.
Why didn’t Mitt Romney emulate Ronald Reagan’s approach to the campaign? Because he couldn’t. Romney doesn’t believe in the principles of small government. Instead of hypothesizing about how life could be better with less government intrusion in our lives, he instead tried to tell us how life could be better if only it was Mitt Romney directing the intrusion instead of Barack Obama. To Romney, the amount of government we have is not the issue–instead, who’s in charge is what really matters. In other words, big government is acceptable as long as it is exercised properly.
This has been the mantra of the so-called “moderate” wing of the Republican party for the last 80 years. Their idea that government need not be small in order to be efficient leads to a very peculiar campaigning/governing style. To paraphrase, their message to American voters has generally been, “Vote for us, and we won’t get rid of big government, but we’ll do it more efficiently than the left.”
This message makes it exceedingly difficult to win elections. The mechanics of big government require pandering, and an engagement in identity politics. Democrats have always been better at this than Republicans because they have always been willing to go further–further with the welfare state, further with redistribution of wealth, and further with affirmative action. When the Republican alternative to pandering is “pandering lite,” it provides no visible contrast for the electorate. Their “smaller government” is often mistaken for “small government,” even though it is essentially still big government. This makes it increasingly difficult for true conservative candidates to get elected: as increasing numbers of Republicans govern like Democrats, and as their version of big government inevitably fails, the failures of big government are with ever more frequency painted as failures of small government, simply because those failures occur when the person in power has an (R) after their name instead of a (D). In reality we haven’t had a small government for many years, regardless of our leaders’ party affiliations.
Yet what is the response to this election from the pundits and moderates in the Republican party? It is that we must double-down on the pandering, that we conservatives must compromise more of our principles in order to gain votes, and that the era of small government is over.
Looking at the election of 1980, however, it appears to me that, when presented with a clear and marked choice between liberty and big government, people overwhelmingly choose liberty. Ronald Reagan understood that, and he wasn’t afraid to advocate for liberty as a candidate or as President. It is with this knowledge, and an eye turned toward the future, that I ask, why don’t we try a little less Romney, and a little more Reagan?