Sunday, June 8, 2014

Why Republicans Keep Drawing the Wrong Conclusions About 2008 and 2012

You keep hearing it all the time from the far Right. The reason Republicans lost the last two presidential elections was that they didn't nominate candidates who were strong conservatives. If only they had nominated someone like Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum, the Party would control the White House.

You sometimes hear similar sentiments from the far Left. To this day, progressives still believe Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were excellent nominees who were the victims of vicious mudslinging by their GOP opponents.  Right, and I'm sure there are some folkies left who still haven't forgiven Dylan for going electric. Fortunately, after getting shellacked in both the '84 and '88 elections, Democrats got smart and veered towards the center. Since then, they have won the popular vote in every presidential election, save for 2004. And it should be noted that the '04 Democratic nominee, John Kerry, was a throwback to those "glorious" days.

It is a political axiom that you run to your party's base to secure the nomination, but then you pivot to the center to win the general. Virtually every successful presidential bid from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama got this formula right. Conversely, those nominees who didn't successfully pivot lost. You could make the argument that George H. W. Bush in 1992 and Al Gore in 2000 were probably affected more by third-party challengers than by a failure to pivot to the center, but that would be splitting hairs. Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, John McCain and Mitt Romney all belong to a list of candidates who successfully wooed their respective party's bases only to be handed their lunch in the general election. Indeed, all but Kerry lost by huge margins.

McCain and Romney are textbook cases of how not to run a presidential campaign. For all intents and purposes, neither man was a hard-right conservative. McCain, for his part, successfully worked with Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation. The most notable and famous of these collaborations was the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which dealt with the plethora of soft money that was being funneled into campaigns and corrupting the political process throughout the country. 

Romney had been elected governor of Massachusetts, one of the bluest states in the country. He developed a reputation for being a pragmatic businessman who sought to govern by consensus rather than ideology. His landmark healthcare law, later dubbed Romneycare, would become the boiler plate for President Obama's signature healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2010. In fact, Romney, in an interview on CNN, proudly boasted of his law and urged the then new president to adopt it to the reform bill that was taking shape in the Democratically-controlled Congress.

So what happened to both men? Ostensibly what happened was that the base of the Republican Party forced them so far to the right, they were never able to make that all-essential pivot back to the center. After securing the '08 nomination, McCain, who managed to pull within a couple points of Obama, decided to tab Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. While conservatives were delighted by the pick, moderates grew wary of both her stances and her lack of experience. Obama's lead widened and he ended up routing McCain in the general.

Romney's story is eerily similar. Throughout the entire 2012 primary, the former Massachusetts governor did his best to disown practically every accomplishment he had as governor, including his own healthcare law. Like McCain, he picked a running mate in Paul Ryan who mollified the far Right, but provided ammunition for the Obama campaign to use in the general election. With the exception of his Denver debate performance, Romney was never able to build his case as a practical alternative. He was a prisoner of his party's fanatical base. Like in '08, Obama cruised to an easy victory.

But, to hear the far Right tell it, that's not what happened. Yes, they'll concede that McCain and Romney weren't true conservatives who adhered to conservative principles. But that is where they part company with the conventional wisdom. For them, it was their lack of conviction rather than their lack of pragmatism that did them in. In other words, they didn't drink enough of the Kool-Aid.

The problem for the Republican Party is twofold. First, the GOP, like the Democratic Party of the '70s and '80s, is a divided party. There is the national party and the congressional party. The former is at odds with the latter. Spurred on by the success of the 2010 midterms, congressional Republicans have convinced themselves that their message is truly resonating with the voters. What they forget is that midterm elections are poor barometers for assessing overall public sentiment. It is the presidential elections that often determine the real mood of the electorate. And that dichotomy is at the heart of the GOP dilemma. Like their counterparts on the other side of the political aisle decades ago, Republicans of today tend to do well in their congressional races, while getting clobbered in presidential elections.  The fact that most of the GOP's strength comes from its legislative ranks doesn't help matters.

But the second problem is far worse. Extremist elements have ostensibly taken over the Republican Party. The Tea Party movement now dictates virtually all Party policy. Pundits who predicted that Tea Party losses to establishment Republicans in this year's primaries would somehow trigger a new wave of pragmatism and moderation, have completely missed the boat. Tea Party candidates didn't need to win those primaries. The GOP is now so far over to the right, it hardly matters anymore who wins. They all hold identical positions. There is scarcely a moderate left within the Party's ranks. They have been effectively purged. The only thing that the GOP gained in those primaries was a few less unhinged candidates muddying up the waters.

And now the Republican Party is licking its chops over their prospects of resting Senate control from Democrats in November. If that does indeed happen - and it's 50/50 at present - the GOP will have reached yet another flawed conclusion: that they were right all along. Such a belief will, no doubt, cause them to drift still further to the right (assuming that's even possible) and nominate a candidate who is a true believer; someone like Ted Cruz, who has become a rock star among the base. Assuming Hillary Clinton decides to run, the 2016 election would likely be another landslide victory for Democrats. Republicans would not only lose their third presidential election in a row, but probably both chambers of Congress, as well. And that could very well be the death knell for the GOP.

In 1992, Democrats made a courageous decision. They went against their base and took a chance by nominating Bill Clinton.  The rest, as they say, is history. I see nothing within the Republican Party which indicates it is willing or even able to do the same. Chris Christie, assuming he survives this bridge-gate scandal - and it's looking more and more like he will - would be the GOP's best hope of winning in 2016. Let me just come out and say it: I have a better shot at winning the Republican nomination than Christie does.

Republicans simply can't bring themselves to accept a staggering reality: that the reason for their continued electoral failures are because of their positions, not in spite of them. It's not that they aren't getting their message across; it's that a majority of Americans simply aren't buying it.

1 comment:

Prof. Walter Jameson said...


I have a couple of thoughts on some of the points you've made. Let's just say that there is certainly more than one way to look at these things and, oftentimes, what we think to be "conventional wisdom" has a great deal of the adjective and precious little of the noun.

Mondale and Dukakis were not *excellent* nominees; they were *good* nominees. But did it matter? Seriously, who could the Democrats have run in '84 that would have defeated Reagan? In '88, George H.W. Bush had a masterful campaign machinery in place - not unlike Bill Clinton's in '92 - and he was riding on the coattails of one of the most popular presidents in modern U.S. history. He was also perceived, rightly in my view, as being strong in the area of foreign policy. Lastly, and perhaps most important, in 1988 the U.S. economy was enjoying its sixth year of expansion. We were doing quite well. Bread and butter issues, see? What would've been the overriding factor for change at that point?

In 2004, Sen. Kerry should've won easily. The economy was still shaky (since the autumn of '01) and the war - both wars, actually - were beginning to lose a lot of support among the population. But he didn't lose because he was a "throwback to those glorious days," as you put it. He lost because he vacillated on almost every damn position he took. The man was a horrendous candidate. He came across as having no firm beliefs at all. Perhaps if he didn't try so damn hard to be a centrist, he very well may have won the election.

You stated that one could make the argument that George H.W. Bush ('92) and Al Gore ('00) were affected more by third-party challengers rather than by a failure to pivot to the center. Well, I wouldn't make either of those arguments. George H.W. Bush had a 90% approval rate going into his reelection bid. He lost because the economy tanked and his opponent masterfully made it THE singular issue of the election. Remember the jobless recovery? In the early 90s, corporate America was kicking people to the streets by the tens of thousands. It made people forget very fast about the overall success of Operation Desert Storm. Once again, a bread and butter issue.

The situation around Al Gore's bid for the presidency is more complex. But it had nothing to do with this stuff about "pivoting to the center." Al Gore was the poster child for the "New Democrats." They were the very definition of centrism in the universe of all Democrats. So what happened? Well, can't blame the economy; it was going full-throttle. How about personalities? Yes, you read that correctly: personalities. In other words, a personality that people related to, were drawn to, in a much stronger way than that of the other guy. Contrast how they both came across to the public during their campaigns and during their debates. Not so difficult to see, is it? Also, don't forget, Al Gore was perceived as throwing Bill Clinton under bus because of the scandals. But he greatly miscalculated the continued strength of Bill Clinton's popularity among the people. Had he accepted President Clinton's offer to campaign for him, Al Gore may very well have won the presidency - even with his obvious personality deficit. On paper, he should've won the damn thing ... easily! But as with many things, it's often not that clear-cut. And as I said before, this thing about conventional wisdom? Yes, oftentimes conventional .... a lot of times, without much wisdom.

I've taken up enough bytes of virtual space. Thank you for the opportunity to respond.