In the aftermath of President Obama’s re-election victory, the customary and predictable Monday-morning quarterbacking has consumed the dialogue as it relates to the Republican Party. What went wrong? Who is to blame? What is the prognosis and what is the cure? As I listen to an endless stream of opinions and analysis on the need for “soul-searching”, divided views on whether the party is too close to the center and needs to move harder to the right, or vice versa, and definitive pronouncements that the changing demographics of the electorate amount to a death knell for Republicans, it strikes me that the solution for the Republican Party is far simpler than all of that.
But first some important context regarding what happened in Tuesday’s election. Of course a win is a win, and a loss is a loss, but President Obama’s re-election was hardly the complete and total repudiation of Republicans implied by the dire nature of the post-election analysis. Notwithstanding the obvious advantages of incumbency, and the disadvantages to the challenger of having to endure 8-12 months of attacks from his own party colleagues throughout an arduous primary process, Mitt Romney’s almost 59 MILLION votes on Tuesday represent the highest number of votes ever cast for any candidate, win or lose, prior to 2004 – and President Obama is the first President ever to be re-elected with fewer votes and a smaller margin of victory than the first term win. The cumulative vote differential in the 4 swing states of FL, OH, VA, and NV was 359,628 or just 3/10 of 1 percent of the total votes cast, which is arguably the true margin of victory for the President. This was no smackdown.
If there was a failure on Tuesday it was neither Mitt Romney’s nor that of the Republican Party, but rather a failure of a significant number of Americans to cast their votes consistent with their own stated priorities and preferences
Consider the following data from CNN exit polls:
Most important issue facing the country:
- The Economy (59%)
49% say Romney would handle better vs 48% for Obama 79% say economic conditions not so good/poor 52% say country going in the wrong direction
- Healthcare (18%)
49% say Obamacare should be repealed vs 44% who say it should not be repealed
- The Deficit (15%)
49% say Romney would handle better vs 47% for Obama 63% say taxes should not be raised to cut the deficit 51% say government doing too much vs 43% government should do more
- Foreign Policy (5%)
57% trust Obama to handle International Crisis 50% trust Romney to handle International Crisis
And 49 % of Americans describe their opinion of the Obama Administration as “Dissatisfied” or “Angry” If these were entry polls going into the voter booths, who would you expect to win? Given what this data tells us about the priorities and corresponding preferences of the American electorate, how and why did Mitt Romney lose?
The answer I believe is that at the margin, the 2012 Presidential election was won on the issues of gay rights, abortion, and immigration policy (which has become a misnomer for Civil Rights for Illegal Immigrants), and by the auto workers who received an unprecedented gift from the Obama Administration (a calculated and highy effective reelection strategy; ever wonder how many bygone American corporations would have survived given the opportunity to zero out their debt, recapitalize with tens of billions of taxpayer dollars, receive a 2-3 year exemption from corporate income taxes, and have the federal government subsidize purchase of their products?)
But let us restrict our focus to the 2 social issues of gay rights and abortion. While neither of these issues rises to the top of any voter poll of top priorities, what those polls don’t measure is the extent to which these issues serve as negative litmus tests for key demographic constituents and therefore trump any stated priorities.
Consider Susan, who says “Yes I think Obama has been terrible on jobs and the economy, yes I think Romney would do a much better job, yes I think Romney is better suited to restore America’s leadership on the international stage” followed by “but I just can’t vote for a man who wants to make abortion illegal”. Or Steve, who says the same followed by “but I just can’t vote for a President who wants to deny marriage rights to gay couples.”.
Two critical demographic constituents to whom these litmus tests most likely applied, unmarried women and 18-29-year olds, favored Obama by 38 and 24 points respectively. To much of our nation’s youth in this modern era, these issues are no-brainers. They represent personal preferences or choices that for the most part should simply lie outside the scope of government.
So what is the solution for the Republican Party and how can it get away from losing elections despite having a good strong candidate like Mitt Romney and the support of a majority of Americans on the big issues and challenges facing our nation?
First, Republicans must draw a sharp line of demarcation between social and/or religious values, which may determine how they lead their lives, raise their families, and make personal choices, and governing principles, which determine how they govern, legislate, allocate public resources, and tackle the enormous challenges that face America and the world.
Second, consistent with above, they must effectively remove social and religious issues from the legislative and/or judicial platform and agenda, and by extension from the election process, in favor of governing principles.
And finally, they must embrace a new paradigm which at its core stipulates that bifurcating social or religious values from governing principles does not in anyway compromise the former, nor are these incompatible or mutually exclusive positions. In other words, there is nothing contradictory or compromising in holding strong moral or religious convictions on the one hand, and on the other embracing as a governing principle that it is not the role of government to impose those convictions on others through a legislative or judicial agenda. The oath of office is to uphold the constitution, not to amend it. Leave that to Congress and the State legislatures.
You might have strong convictions regarding the sanctity of life and when it begins, or the definition of marriage as being a union between a man and a woman, but you also hold dear as governing principles personal freedom, individual liberty, and limiting the reach of government into our lives as citizens. Why can’t you be pro-life, abhor abortion, but respect that it is the woman’s right and not the government’s to make the decision? And as a governing principle, you can maintain your position on federal funding, which is already the law of the land.
Similarly, I hate guns. I don’t want them in my house, I don’t allow my kids to have gun-related toys or video games, and I find hunting barbaric. Those are personal convictions. As a governing principle, I also believe very strongly in the Second Amendment. I simply choose to exercise my right NOT to bear arms. I am anti-gun, and Pro-2nd Amendment.
And forget about a gay marriage ban. You don’t have to like it or even support it (though there is no reason you shouldn’t), but honor your governing principle that allows those who feel differently to exercise their individual (and constitutional) rights and liberties. President Obama believed that marriage is between a man and a woman until the Spring of 2012, when he came out in support of gay marriage. Do you think his position really changed? No – he still believes as he did before. What changed was the recognition that it’s just fine (and politically expedient) to accommodate, at no cost to his core values, those who feel differently.
I do not believe that the negative litmus test on social issues applies to the candidate’s position, but only to his desire or intent to legislate the position. After all, Jimmy Carter was pro-life and Richard Nixon was pro-choice! (and Prescott Bush was the first Treasurer of Planned Parenthood, which was created by the passage of Title X signed into law by President Nixon)
So what impact might my proposed solution have had on the 2012 election?
The answer, in its simplest form, lies in how many more of the roughly 4.5 million voters in the swing states of OH, FL, VA, and NV representing single unmarried women and voters age 18-29 would have voted for the governing principles of smaller government, lower taxes, fiscal discipline and accountability, and economic recovery in the absence of any threat to the legality of abortion or the rights of the gay community to legally marry. If the answer is greater than 359,628, or an incremental 7.9% of just those 2 constituents in those 4 states, than Mitt Romney would be President.
The answer, more broadly, lies in the exit polls indicating voter ideology at 35% Conservative, 25% Liberal, and 40% Moderate. What is the difference between a Liberal and a Moderate? I postulate that the difference is that a Moderate leans toward Republicans on governing and economic principles, and toward Democrats on social issues. What is the difference between a Conservative and a Moderate? I postulate it is exactly the same.
So yes, I believe that a Republican platform which effectively bifurcates social and/or religious values from governing principles in favor of the latter can result over time in a 75% Republican majority.
Mitt Romney is a good man and was the right man at the right time for America. Regardless of who had won last Tuesday, four years from now abortion will still be legal, and gay marriage will still be up to the states (and it’s only a matter of “when” and not “if” it’s acceptance becomes the rule and not the exception); and yet, simply on account of the perceived and remote threat of those liberties being violated, we reelected Barack Obama and our global and domestic economies will be disastrous, our way of life inexorably altered, and the geopolitical landscape dramatically more dangerous (at best). What a ridiculous price to pay for chasing the ghost of overturning Roe v. Wade or a constitutional amendment defining marriage.
The choice comes down to this:
President Romney, who says “I am pro-life. I believe that life begins at conception, and I personally abhor the concept of abortion other than in extreme circumstances. But I also recognize that it is not my role, or that of any other elected official, to impose that view on a pregnant woman who is guided by her values and conscience to a different decision”.
Or . . .
Former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who says “I am pro-life. I believe that life begins at conception, and I personally abhor the concept of abortion other than in extreme circumstances. I will fight every day for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, and will only appoint Supreme Court justices who given the chance will overturn Roe v. Wade”
I was struck by the following passage, allegedly translated from an article published in a Prague newspaper Prager Zeitungon on April 28, 2010:
“The danger to America is not Barack Obama, but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with the Presidency. It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of an Obama presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president. The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Mr. Obama, who is a mere symptom of what ails America. Blaming the prince of fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their prince. The Republic can survive a Barack Obama, who is, after all, merely a fool. It is less likely to survive a multitude of fools, such as those who made him their President.”
While I reluctantly agree on the surface, I would prefer to defer this judgement and instead give America a pass for voting with her heart and not her head. But instead of persisting in trying to convince voters to do otherwise, the opportunity for Republicans is to lead by running on a platform of governing with the head and not the heart, and let the voters follow.