[Post updated below]
Looking back, the most surprising thing about last night’s election results was how quickly, quietly and deeply the knife cut.
As voting counts and exit polls began trickling in shortly after 8:00 EST, the Fates quickly began tipping their hand to show that neither a Romney presidency nor a Supreme Court intervention was in the cards. By 8:30 the legions of right wing pundits that had spent the past two weeks mocking and trashing Nate Silver’s statistical chops had the common decency to shut the hell up and pretend the whole kerfuffle had never happened. (Except, of course, for Examiner darling Dean Chambers of Unskewed Polls who courageously carried on the battle to keep his head in the sand.) An hour later everyone was announcing that despite the economy, the Democrats would retain control of the Senate. Less that an hour after that, the presidential writing was on the wall in huge, blue brush strokes. With tons of votes still to be counted, all of the networks finally announced what viewers had already figured out: Obama was getting four more years.
I spent much of my evening last night with remote control in hand, switching back and forth between CNN, MSNBC and FOX, and I have to say that although they reported the exact same data the differences between the three were somewhat fascinating.
Wanting to appear the wonky objective news source, CNN spent the first couple of hours showing not-yet meaningful county-by-county statistics in swing states. (“We see here that in Fairfax County, Obama is down two percent as compared to how he performed in 2008. However, we want to caution everyone that only about 1% of the vote is in, so this number doesn’t really mean anything. We’ll be revisiting this county every two to three minutes or so to remind you what the numbers are and why it’s still too early for them to matter.”) MSNBC seemed to find a way to put on objective, serious, solemn faces matched with measured, earnest tones that still somehow managed to communicate “Neaner, neaner, neaner!”
On FOX, sad and resigned body language announced Obama’s victory hours before they declared him the winner. But even then, even after they had talked Karl Rove off the ledge, the point they kept hammering home was that Obama didn’t really win because there was no mandate. Rove, Krauthammer, Ms. Cheney, Ingram, Palin, Kelly, Hume, it didn’t really matter. The message from the Republican anchors and pundits was clear: Despite winning the popular vote, (as it now appears likely) the Electoral College by a whopping 126 votes, and three seats in the Senate, the voters had sent a message to Obama that they were not mandating a continuation of his policies. And as bizarre as this sounds, I have to say that I agree with them.
Because from where I sit, the clear message the public sent to Washington wasn’t that they wanted to be governed by Democrats. It was that they really, really don’t want to be governed by Republicans.
Over the coming months Republican leaders, pundits and voters will be sifting through the ashes of what can only be called a disastrous and failed election. Despite a recession and general disenchantment with both the status quo and the president, the GOP got their asses handed to them. If yesterday’s results had occurred during an economic boom, they would have pointed to a strong and respectable moral victory. As things stand, however, they stink of failure.
Odds are that the common wisdom from conservatives will be that this presidential election was lost because the GOP fielded a weak candidate. In this, they will be halfway right. Though I think he would have been a fine executive, Romney was indeed a terrible candidate for most of America. But it’s instructive to note that the reason he was such a terrible candidate is that the Republican base made him that way. If Republicans want even a whiff of New White House smell in 2016, they need to come to terms with that quickly.
Because it’s the way we Americans craft every primary narrative, the story told is that thanks to his perseverance and popular message in 2011 and early 2012, Mitt Romney eventually won over his party’s base to get the nod. This is hogwash. That part of the GOP that is by definition not the GOP base voted for Romney, because after he quickly and repeatedly eviscerated Perry he was the only real choice for social moderates. The base never, ever wanted him. Instead, as I said last winter, they took turns pledging their undying support to one base-friendly candidate after another, casting each quickly aside once blemishes were found. Romney didn’t win their hearts; they just ran out of people to be enthused about. By the end, the base had neatly divided its primary votes up between Paul, Bachmann, Santorum, Cain and Gingrich; the RINO dregs left to Romney were more than enough to push him over the top.
What Republicans need to realize is that had they succeeded running any one of those “true conservatives” in the general election they would have lost by numbers of Biblical proportions, and might have put the House at risk as well. In order to win the nomination, Romney had to temporarily align himself with positions that the Republican base thinks are mainstream but aren’t. (Think: preemptive war on Iraq, building giant walls across the border, contraception issues, becoming a “Christian Nation,” etc.) Had the base been willing to cut him loose to win once the primary was complete, Romney might have had good shot at winning the general. Instead, as I have previously noted the thought of the base abandoning him continually forced him to tack further right. Worse, it put him in a position where he constantly had to pretend he was someone else, which made him seem both plastic and spineless. (Compare, if you will, any of his stump speech performances to the confident, humble, honorable and comfortable guy that thanked his volunteers in a concession speech last night. That guy would have smoked Obama.)
If you don’t believe that, look at how the Republicans botched the Senate – which history and the economy said was rightfully theirs for the taking. Elizabeth Warren beat moderate Scott Brown, but I believe most analysts will agree that this is simply because in a high profile election, Massachusetts voters were going to elect a Democrat over a Republican, even one that had performed as well as Brown had. But a look at the other two high profile races is instructive. In each, the party’s refusal to learn from “Flukegate” cost them dearly.
Missouri Democrat incumbent Claire McCaskill was caught using taxpayer money to fund a private airplane she owned to the tune of $88,000. Republicans in that conservative state should have unseated her easily, since such a breach of public trust is plenty of reason to lose one’s job. But they lost anyway, because they chose to nominate Todd Akin – a man that was so outside of the American mainstream that he seemed genuinely puzzled at women’s reaction to his claim that women who are “legitimately” raped have secret juices that shut that whole pregnancy thing down.
Similarly, Republican stronghold Indiana should have been safe from Democratic control and no doubt would have if the party had nominated a Scott Brown (or kept Lugar) instead of Richard Mourdock. Inexplicably, when Mourdock made his now infamous comment about God and rape, Republicans – who were at that moment anxiously trying to court the women’s vote – publically came to his defense and just dug their hole that much deeper. “If you read the actual transcript,” they said over and over in the media, “you’ll see he doesn’t actually advocate rape:
‘Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.’
See? God just wanted that child to be conceived – He never wanted that woman to be raped.” None of them ever stopped to consider that when they said this, the message independent women were hearing – whether they mean to to sound this way or not – was “God wanted that man to impregnate that woman – it isn’t God’s fault she wouldn’t consent.”
When their leaders are caught saying such things, the reaction from conservative pundits is telling. Seemingly convinced that they hold a large majority that they just don’t, they act like guys at a frat party. They tell a woman that wants her healthcare coverage to include contraception that she should have sex in front of a camera so they can get off to her. They run “funny” cover stories written by men in their “respected” magazines that argue that men that have daughters instead of sons are weak p**sies. They tell women who sludge out to their own political rallies that they assumed they are there to talk about shoes. When faced with the reality that these kinds of statement bother a lot of women, they simply reconstruct reality in their heads until they convince themselves that chicks really dig them and hate guys like Obama – which itself only digs that gender hole deeper.
But it’s more than just women. In an ever-changing landscape where white, male voters continue to shrink as a percentage of the overall electorate, Republicans still don’t understand why black voters don’ get that telling black candidates to “go back to Africa” is just a joke, or why black voters might object to treating a shooting victim as a gangsta’ thug to score political points. Or why Latinos, regardless of their stance on illegal immigration, might find disconcerting a law that might have allowed people to be stopped on the basis of looking like an illegal immigrant.
I maintain that both racism and sexism exist on all sides of the aisle(s). But at the moment, the GOP has a huge PR and electability issue that is theirs alone. Because even if Republicans are correct in their constant claims that their team has far fewer bigots than their counterparts (a big “if”), they’re still the party that seems to take frat-boy glee in flaunting their own side’s transgressions. It’s as if the desire to be seen as non-PC trumps everything else, including both losing non-white male votes and – in some cases – defending actual racism and sexism out of spite. They would rather offend 60% 0f female voters or 90% of black voters than tell some asshat with an (R) in front of their name that he’s being offensive. (Up to a point that is – they certainly came down hard on Derbyshire… well, most of them, anyway.)
Simply put, Republicans need to grow up, grow a pair and grow a more inclusive constituency. And they need to do it fast.
Update: I had meant to put this point in the post intially but forgot; it’s important enough that I’m adding it as an update:
The flip side of this mandate is just as true for the Democrats. They would therefore by wise to pick their battles and work as if they had eked out a one vote victory and needed to earn the voters trust. If they don’t they could very easily see a repeat of 2010 in two years.