WASHINGTON — America’s 57th presidential election revealed that a second important national institution is on an unsustainable trajectory. The first, the entitlement state, is endangered by improvident promises to an aging population. It is now joined by the political party whose crucial current function is to stress the need to reform this state. And now the Republican Party, like today’s transfer-payment state, is endangered by tardiness in recognizing that demography is destiny.
Perhaps Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election on Sept. 22, 2011, when, alarmed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entry into the Republican nomination race, he rushed to Perry’s right regarding immigration, attacking the DREAM Act. He would go on to talk about forcing illegal immigrants into “self-deportation.” It is surprising that only about 70 percent of Hispanics opposed Romney.
As it has every four years since 1992, the white portion of the turnout declined in 2012. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first person elected president while losing the white vote by double digits. In 2012 — the year after the first year in which a majority of babies born in America were minorities — Hispanics were for the first time a double-digit (10 percent) portion of the turnout. Republicans have four years to figure out how to leaven their contracting base with millions more members of America’s largest and fastest-growing minority.
Romney’s melancholy but useful role has been to refute those determinists who insist that economic conditions are almost always decisive. Americans are earning less and worth less than they were four years ago; average household income is down $3,800; under the 11 presidents from Harry Truman through George W. Bush, unemployment was 8 percent or more for a total of 39 months but was over that for 43 Obama months. Yet voters preferred the president who presided over this to a Republican who, more than any candidate since the Great Depression, made his economic expertise his presidential credential.
Voters littered the political landscape with contradictions between their loudly articulated discontents and their observable behavior. Self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals 2-1 in a nation that has re-elected the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson and his mentor Franklin Roosevelt. A nation said to be picnicking on the slope of a volcano, with molten anger bubbling just below its thin and brittle crust, has matched a rare record of stability in its central political office: For only the second time — the first was the Virginia dynasty of the third, fourth and fifth presidents, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe — there will be three consecutive two-term presidents.
A nation vocally disgusted with the status quo has reinforced it by ratifying existing control of the executive branch and both halves of the legislative branch. After three consecutive “wave” elections in which a party gained at least 20 House seats, and at a moment when approval of Congress has risen — yes, risen — to 21 percent, voters ratified Republican control of the House, keeping in place those excoriated as obstructionists by the president the voters retained. Come January, Washington will be much as it has been, only more so.
Obama is only the second president (Andrew Jackson was the first) to win a second term with a reduced percentage of the popular vote, and the third (after James Madison and Woodrow Wilson) to win a second term with a smaller percentage of the electoral vote. A diminished figure after conducting the most relentlessly negative campaign ever run by an incumbent, his meager mandate is to not be Bain Capital. Foreshadowing continuing institutional conflict, which the constitutional system not only anticipates but encourages, Speaker John Boehner says of the House Republican caucus: “We’ll have as much of a mandate as he will.”
The electoral vote system, so incessantly and simple-mindedly criticized, has again performed the invaluable service of enabling federalism — presidents elected by the decisions of the states’ electorates — to deliver a constitutional decisiveness that the popular vote often disguises.
Republicans can take some solace from the popular vote. But unless they respond to accelerating demographic changes — and Obama, by pressing immigration reform, can give Republicans a reef on which they can wreck themselves — the 58th presidential election may be like the 57th, only more so.
This election was fought over two issues as old as the Republic, the proper scope and actual competence of government. The president persuaded — here the popular vote is the decisive datum — almost exactly half the voters. The argument continues. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “Finality is not the language of politics.”