The Romney Pre-mortems

Post-mortems on the Romney campaign are like Christmas catalogs. It’s way too early, but here they are. Waiting for a guy to actually lose before you explain why he lost is so old-fashioned.

Remember those articles about where the 2007-2008 Patriots rank among the all-time great teams? (Somewhere behind the 2007-2008 Giants, apparently.) I don’t know what makes this kind of premature speculation so irresistible, but it is.

Republicans thought this was the year they couldn’t lose. Unemployment was high, the deficit was high, ObamaCare was unpopular, and the same wave of public discontent that had given Republicans a sweep in 2010 would win them the White House in 2012. As a bonus, their new House majority that could keep Obama from getting anything done, and — even better! — shoot the economy in the foot by provoking a debt-ceiling standoff. See what a lousy president Obama is? The country’s credit rating went south on his watch!

So the dialog during the Republican primaries went like this. Tea Party types would say, “We don’t like Romney. He’s not really one of us.” And saner Republicans would answer: “Don’t screw this up by nominating somebody scary like Bachmann or Santorum. Just play it cool and we’ve got this in the bag.”

Suddenly it’s out of the bag. Obama’s approval rating is positive again. He leads Romney in every major poll, and Nate Silver’s polling model puts the odds of an Obama victory over 85% (98% if the election were held today). Now it’s starting to look like Democrats could hold the Senate and may even recapture the House.

Somebody’s got to take the blame for that, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

So the race is on to establish the definitive why-Romney-will-have-lost scenario. (If I remember my grammar, that’s the future perfect tense.)

Some have been quick to jump on the Romney’s-a-bad-candidate explanation. And indeed, he has failed to articulate any message more positive than “I’m not Obama.” (It was sad this weekend when even Fox News pressed Paul Ryan for details on the Romney tax plan, only to be told, “It would take me too long to go through all the math.”) The 47% video has turned out to be hugely damaging, not because it was that much worse than a lot of other things Romney has done, but because it so precisely confirmed what voters were already afraid of: Romney isn’t just rich, he holds the rest of us in contempt.

David Brooks has compared Romney to Thurston Howell, the out-of-touch millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. Peggy Noonan called his campaign a “rolling calamity“. All of which annoys RedState.com’s Erick Erickson to no end, because he blames the Brooks/Noonan Republicans for foisting Romney on the Party to begin with:

The staggering irony is that those of us who did not want Romney are now the ones defending him to the hilt while the elitist jerks are distancing themselves from Romney as quickly as possible — both upset at what their media friends tell them is to come and upset that Mitt Romney might not actually listen to their sweet whispers as much as they originally presumed.

But that leads to the question: Who should have been the nominee? Santorum? Herman Cain? Kevin Drum lays it on the line:

Romney was the best they had. The very best. Let that sink in for a bit.

Or maybe the problem is Paul Ryan. With Obama’s lead among younger voters, Romney had to carry the elderly. Ryan’s Medicare-voucher plan scared them.

Other observers blame the Republican base, (i.e., people like Erickson) for creating an environment where no Republican could win: To get through the primaries, any candidate would have to take positions that would make them unelectable in the general election. Robert Reich put it best:

Romney’s failing isn’t that he’s a bad candidate. To the contrary, he’s giving this GOP exactly what it wants in a candidate. And that’s exactly the problem for Romney — as it is for every other Republican candidate — because what the GOP wants is not at all what the rest of America wants.

National Review takes a longer, more philosophical perspective: The problem is “the shadow of the George W. Bush years.” As frustrating as it is to Republicans that people still blame Bush more than Obama for the bad economy, the party still hasn’t figured out what it should learn from the Bush era.

Romney’s silence about the errors of the Bush years is, on the other hand, understandable, since many Republicans continue to hold Bush in high esteem as a good man who tried to do a lot of good things. Since most Americans consider Bush a failure, Romney cannot embrace him either. So Bush has been an awkward non-presence in the campaign: the man who was not there.

Democrats kept running against Herbert Hoover until the generation that remembered him died off. W will suffer the same fate until Republicans come up with a definitive critique of Bush and some new non-Bush policies.

With the base still not willing to deal with their Bush mistake, Mitt had only two choices, says Steve Kornacki:

He can run on the House’s far-right agenda, which is a product of conservatives’ mistaken conviction that Bush failed because he wasn’t enough of an ideologue; or, recognizing how politically poisonous the House GOP’s vision is with general election voters, he can try to steer clear of it and hope voters are just blindly angry at Obama, like they were in ’10.

Romney has mostly chosen the second option, and while the evidence is mounting that it’s not working, you can hardly blame him for trying. The alternative is much worse.

As I indicated at the beginning, why-Romney-will-have-lost is a ridiculous game to be playing. Early voting has just started. Everyone who cares should just go all-out for their candidate and see what happens. It’s not like the why-Mitt-lost argument will be over by Election Day.

But … it’s so irresistible for any political junkie. I have to play. So here’s my thinking: At its root these days, the conservative movement is based on myths rather than facts. And the biggest myth of all is: conservatism is popular.

In conservative mythology, all real Americans are conservatives — unless they’ve been bamboozled by the liberal media or cowed by false accusations of racism or corrupted into dependency on government programs.

So if conservatives lose elections, there can only be a few explanations: voter fraud or the personal failings of a candidate or the media being “in the tank” for liberals. Otherwise, the problem was that the candidate just wasn’t conservative enough. He wasn’t a true believer. He didn’t put forward the full force of conservatism’s case.

The real explanation for Romney’s troubles is that conservatism just isn’t popular. He looked electable when he looked fuzzy — maybe he was a conservative, maybe he was a moderate. Remember his governorship in Massachusetts?

But the base couldn’t stand that fuzziness and Romney couldn’t win without them, so he was forced to define himself more and more as a conservative. Paul Ryan sealed the deal.

Republicans need to get their moderates back. They can continue to hold conservative ideals, but they need to reassure the country that they can compromise and be part of a governing coalition, as Reagan was. Right now that’s not true. Until it is, their national candidates will be in trouble.

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  • Tuan  On February 3, 2013 at 6:49 am

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