In this election the Republican Party ran two wholly inoffensive blue state Republicans on a platform of jobs at a time when the economy was everyone’s chief concern and the incumbent had absolutely failed to fix the economy. And they lost.
The Monday — or Wednesday — morning quarterbacks will have a fine time debating what Mitt Romney should have done differently. The red Republicans will say that he should have been more aggressive and should have hit Obama on Benghazi. The blue Republicans will blame a lack of outreach to Latinos. Some will blame Sandy, others will blame Christie and many will point to voter fraud. And they will all have a point, but the makings of this defeat did not happen in the last two weeks; they happened in the last two years.
Mitt Romney won the primaries because he was electable. But, as it turned out, he really wasn’t electable after all. Not when the chief criteria of electability is having no opinion, no point of view and no reason to run for office except to win. Not when the chief criteria of being a Republican presidential nominee is being able to convince people that you’re hardly a Republican at all.
Romney was a star political athlete who had an excellent training regimen and coaching staff. But to win elections, you have to change people’s minds. It’s not enough to try hard or to fight hard; you have to fight for something besides the chance to round the bases. You have to wake people up to a cause.
The Republican comeback did not begin with innocuous candidates; it began with angry protesters in costumes and Gadsden flags marching outside ObamaCare town halls. The 2010 midterm election triumphs were not the work of a timorous establishment, but of a vigorous grassroots opposition. And once the Tea Party movement started the fire, the Republican establishment acted like the Tea Party had sabotaged their comeback and cut the ties with their own grassroots movement. Separated, the Republican grassroots and the Republican Party both withered on the vine.
The stunning 2010 midterm election victories happened because a conservative opposition loudly and vociferously convinced a majority of Americans that ObamaCare would be harmful to them. And then that fantastic engine of change was packed away and replaced with political consultants who were all focused on seizing the center and offending as few people as possible. But you don’t win political battles by being inoffensive. And you don’t win elections by avoiding conflict.
Is it any wonder that the 2012 election played out the way it did?
The Democrats in the Bush years were about as unlikable a party as could ever be conceived of. They were hostile, hateful and obstructionist. They spewed conspiracy theories at the drop of a hat and behaved in a way that would have convinced any reasonable person not to entrust them with a lawnmower, let alone political power. And not only were they rewarded for that by winning Congress, but they also went on to win the White House.
Why? Because dissatisfied people gravitate to an opposition. They don’t gravitate to a loyal opposition. They aren’t inspired by mild-mannered rhetoric, but by those who appear to channel their anger.
When the Republican Party sold out the Tea Party, it sold out its soul, and the only driving energy that it had. And there was nothing to replace it with. The Republican Party stopped being the opposition and became a position that it was willing to reposition to get closer to the center. Mitt Romney embodied that willingness to say anything to win and it is exactly that willingness to say anything to win that the public distrusts.
The elevation of Mitt Romney was the triumph of inoffensiveness. Romney ran an aggressive campaign, but it was a mechanical exercise, a smooth assault by trained professionals paid to spin talking points in dangerous directions. But, what if the voters really wanted a certain amount of offensiveness?
What if they wanted someone who mirrored their anger at being out of work, at having to look at stacks of unpaid bills and at not knowing where their next paycheck was coming from? What if they wanted someone whose anger and distrust of the government echoed their own?
Romney very successfully made the case that he would be a more credible steward of the economy. It was enough to turn out a sizable portion of the electorate, but not enough of it. He tried to be Reagan confronting Carter, but what was remarkable about Reagan, is that he had moments of anger and passion; electric flashes of feeling that stirred his audience and made them believe that he understood their frustrations. That was the source of Reagan’s moral authority and it was entirely lacking in Romney. And without that anger, there is no compelling reason to vote for an opposition party.
The establishment had its chance with Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor was everything that they could possibly want. Moderate, bipartisan and fairly liberal. With his business background, he could make a perfect case for being able to turn the economy around. They had their perfect candidate and their perfect storm and they blew it.
The Republican Party is not going to win elections by being inoffensive. It is not going to win elections by going so far to the center that it no longer stands for anything. It is not going to win elections by throwing away all the reasons that people might have to vote for it. It is not going to win elections by constantly trying to accommodate what it thinks independent voters want, instead of cultivating and growing its base, and using them as the nucleus for an opposition that will change the minds of those independent voters.
The Republican Party has tried playing Mr. Nice Guy. It may be time to get back to being an opposition movement. And the way to do that is by relearning the lessons of the Tea Party movement. The Democratic Party began winning when it embraced the left, instead of running away from it. If the Republican Party wants to win, then it has to embrace the right and learn to get angry again.
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