Hindsight 2012

We’ve had a few weeks to digest the election results, contemplate the exit polls, and draw some conclusions about what happened in the 2012 elections.  They say hindsight is 20/20… but that means failing to use it would be an act of willful blindness.  A few observations about mistakes made by the Romney campaign, some of which didn’t seem like mistakes at the time:

1. Republican candidates need to become a lot better at building coalitions.  Romney left a lot of potential Republican votes on the table.  He was notably tepid toward the Tea Party at first, evidently in the belief that they’d come around on their own, because allowing Obama to win re-election was unthinkable.  He should have been cultivating them instead.  Likewise with the Ron Paul voters, who the Romney campaign and Republican apparatus seemed to spare no effort to antagonize.  The Libertarian spoiler vote was far too strong; if Romney had done a bit better in a few swing states, it could have been decisive.

This sort of coalition building is hard work, no doubt about it.  It’s harder when you’re not the party of Big Government, because you don’t have that marvelous Santa Claus bag of taxpayer-funded goodies to distribute to groups that might not otherwise get along.  But it must be done, and it takes constant effort, not just a few key speeches where the candidate tips his cap to the groups he wants to bring on board.

2. It seemed like a lot of voter education remained to be done at the end of this campaign, which is odd, because Romney chose a running mate who is exceptionally good at that sort of thing.  Paul Ryan should have been producing the kind of videos he made to introduce his “Path to Prosperity” budget proposals – they were informative and accessible explanations of important concepts.

In particular, the Romney campaign should have invested more effort in telling voters about the realistic limits to government revenue as a share of Gross Domestic Product.  No matter what fiddling is done with taxes, no matter how high rates are pumped up, it’s impossible to squeeze more than about 18 percent of Gross Domestic Product out of the economy in tax revenue, over a long period of time.  Higher rates crush the economy, giving Uncle Sam a bigger slice of a diminishing pie.  The best way to resolve our budget crisis is to devise tax policies that collect the 18 percent limit, while maximizing the growth of the private sector and spending less than the 18 percent we’re taking in.  Big pie, small slice.

It’s not a terribly difficult concept, and explaining it would spare the public one more painful journey through the blue smoke and mirrors of Obama’s “balance the budget with tax increases” approach.  It’s the sort of thing the public should understand before they vote.  They should also become comfortable with the related concept of the Laffer Curve.  It’s not difficult to explain why tax increases never secure the promised revenue, because people take economically destructive steps to avoid the taxes.  I also still get the impression that much of the general public does not understand how “baseline budgeting” works – they think of disasters like Obama’s stimulus bill as one-time bursts of spending, not permanent increases to the government baseline.  People should understand that many of the terms used by politicians to describe taxes, spending, and government debt are simply farcical, and almost completely divorced from the commonly understood meaning of the words.

The Romney campaign made some efforts in this direction, but it was never the kind of sustained narrative it needed to be: repeated over and over again, with different approaches tailored to reach different sets of ears.

3.  No gaffes!  Look, this is very simple: Republican candidates cannot afford to make any mistakes during high-stakes campaigns.

But Republicans keep forgetting that they have absolutely zero margin of error for using “inelegant phrasing,” as Romney described his “47 percent” video.  Every word must be chosen carefully.  Phrases that can be construed as indicating a lack of concern for any group of people (except, of course, the Evil Rich) must be purged from the candidate’s vocabulary.  There is never a good time to kick back, let your hair down, and shoot the breeze with anyone.  It should still be possible to communicate with clarity and passion using carefully chosen words.

It’s not fair.  We all know it’s not fair.  We don’t really need any further reminders that it’s true, do we?

4. Republican candidates must aggressively build and defend their character.  It seems like they keep waiting for the media referees to throw flags for unnecessary roughness when Democrats hit them below the belt.  Stop that, right this instant.  No more deer-in-the-headlights, where’s-the-outrage moments, Republicans.

Instead, it is necessary for Republicans to cultivate their own “soft power.”  Romney made strides in this direction by introducing personal testimonials from people he helped during his life… but he did it very late in the game, during non-prime-time hours at the convention, and rarely returned to the subject.  I have long suspected this was because Romney disliked using personal acts of charity for political purposes.  The sentiment is understandable, but it cost him dearly.

Would it have been so tough for the Romney campaign to put out more “soft-focus” ads from people who got to keep their jobs because of his venture capital investments?  Or even from people whose lives were improved just by doing businesses with companies he rescued, such as Staples?  Some work along these lines was done, but not enough, especially during those crucial post-primary moments of vulnerability.  The candidate faces tough spending limits in those hours, which is why the incumbent President vigorously took advantage of them with a massive smear campaign.  That seems like a moment when outside groups could step forward to take up some of the slack.

5. Republicans must provide their own institutional memory.  This is one of the most valuable services a biased media extends to Democrats.  Events and statements inconvenient to Democrats are conveniently forgotten, while history uncomfortable for Republicans is kept forever refreshed.  It is politically helpful to be favored by those who decide what constitutes “common knowledge,” and reinforce their decisions through repetition.

But Republican candidates can play this game.  During the hot months of a campaign, the media can be prodded into remembering things.  It always seemed curious to me that the Romney campaign didn’t invest more effort in reminding people just how far Obama’s 2008 campaign promises deviated from the reality he delivered.  Why didn’t we hear more about the unemployment rates and economic growth Obama promised if his trillion-dollar “stimulus” was passed?  Romney mentioned how good Obama is at picking market losers; why not remind everyone of Obama’s confident predictions of success for those losers?

It’s a serious mistake for Republicans to assume that some arguments are so thin and foolish that they don’t need to be countered, because “everyone knows” they’re wrong.  In fact, let’s stop assuming that “everyone knows” anything.

6. Use the Wastebook!  Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) prepares a big book filled with billions of dollars in government waste every year.  Various conservative and libertarian organizations contribute similar lists of outrageous pork-barrel spending and “misplaced” taxpayer money.  Republicans campaigning for fiscal sanity should be talking about that stuff, instead of letting themselves get dragged into blind alleys off Sesame Street, where they can be mugged by Muppets.

For that matter, I don’t recall Romney bothering to effectively rebut the Big Bird stuff, even though there are perfectly straightforward reasons why a beyond-broke federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing the broadcasting system for wildly successful billion-dollar entertainment franchises.  Plenty of conservative writers pitched in to make that case, but the actual Romney campaign did not, and only their official arguments have the power to shift mainstream media focus.

7. Republican campaigns often seem to underestimate the importance of projecting passion and conviction.  The “passion gap” makes them seem perpetually on the defensive, as they spend their time rebutting Democrat allegations that they are monsters.

It’s possible to fight back without sinking to the depths the Obama campaign plumbed in 2012.  Romney ran a tougher campaign than John McCain in many respects, but the tone was still one of polite disagreement.  Romney said Obama was a nice guy who was in over his head; Obama said Romney was a heartless fiend who was willing to let various victim groups face injustice, poverty, and death.

Part of this was a carefully planned strategy to make Americans comfortable with the notion of dismissing the historic First Black President.  There was merit to this strategy, but it really went about as far as it could when Clint Eastwood did that bit with the empty chair at the Republican convention.  The effort probably succeeded, to the extent that various polls showed plenty of people outside the Republican base were willing to fire Barack Obama, but Romney never really followed up by making them eager to do so.

That’s the kind of energy Sarah Palin brought to the 2008 campaign.  A look at the McCain voters who didn’t show up for Romney should give us some idea of her true influence.  As much as Paul Ryan brought to the table, he was never quite able to do what Palin did.  (And I’ve heard some reports that he wanted to try – he was willing to go into the inner cities and deliver a passionate pro-growth message to hostile audiences.)

The task of connecting with voters on a cultural level and infusing a campaign with energy doesn’t have to be left to the veep.  In fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t, because the running mate has a traditional role as long-range offensive ordnance, which you’ll notice Joe Biden filled, with a flurry of inappropriate smiles.  But somebody really needs to be doing what Sarah Palin was doing for John McCain on the campaign trail at the end of the 2008 race.  Many thought New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would fill that role for Romney, but look how that worked out.  It wasn’t just Christie’s tearful embrace of Obama following Hurricane Sandy, either.  If you’d care to do some homework, look up Sarah Palin’s speech from the 2008 Republican convention, or Bill Clinton’s speech from the 2012 Democrat convention, and compare it to the one Christie delivered for Mitt Romney.

One element of projecting conviction involves making the moral case for freedom and capitalism.  Indeed, the unbreakable connection between freedom and capitalism should be stressed.  Obama’s compulsive central planning is not just ineffective, it’s morally wrong.  Solyndra was not just a “mistake,” it was an offense.  The Democrats are very comfortable with presenting their policies in moral terms, to the point where even questioning the effects of these policies is often portrayed as sinful.  Conservatives can fight back very effectively on those grounds without being shrill or offensive.  When properly applied, passion is a force multiplier for logic, not the absence of reason.

8. We really need to stop making a fetish of “the middle class.”  Romney did this quite often.  Such class terminology is routinely abused by the Left to conceal its true intentions.  Good policies are good for everyone, not just arbitrarily defined, protean sub-classes based on perceived income level.  (Quite a few people who think they belong to the “middle class” really don’t, to the extent that such a broad classification has any objective meaning at all.)

The “middle class” obsession has made it easier for the Left to split Americans into warring groups, by obscuring the connections they have with one another.  Republicans are not doing anyone of modest income any favors by allowing the very real connections between his life, and the fortunes of small-business owners and investors, to be obscured.  It is both morally correct and economically sensible to remind voters that we’re all in this together.  People like Barack Obama sometimes feel it necessary to pause their class-war tirades and insist that they don’t really hate “rich people.”  Make them prove it, Republicans.  While you’re at it, force them to precisely define “rich people.”

9. Decentralize.  It’s good for government.  It’s also good for campaigns.  No more Project ORCA debacles.  High tech enhancements to grass-roots get-out-the-vote efforts are useful – in fact, they’re essential, as anyone who has studied the smashing success of the Obama campaign’s efforts should understand.  But the grassroots machinery still needs to be there.  That means spending money and putting boots on the ground.

With the clarity of hindsight, one of the pivotal moments in the 2012 campaign was when Jim Messina of the Obama campaign talked about his team’s efforts to locate “sporadic voters” and bring them to the polls.  Some observers on the Right laughed at this, because in those heady days of 5-point Romney polling leads, it sounded pitiful and desperate.  I didn’t laugh.  I never thought that sounded funny.  I thought it sounded like a very smart strategy.

In the end, a great deal of success in American elections involves finding wavering, relatively unenthusiastic voters and more or less dragging them to the polls.  Early voting provides more time to find them, round them up, and put ballots in their hands.  Big-city political machines are very good at this sort of thing, for a variety of reasons, including the high population density characteristic of cities.  It’s harder to canvas rural and suburban areas to find those sporadic voters.  Republicans need to decentralize and build up widely distributed local organizations who can do the work.  A functional computer system that links them all together would be nice, and isn’t too much to ask for, since this is the Twenty-First Century.  Find out who the sporadic voters are, study what they care about, and design the kind of targeted appeals that will put ballots in their hands… just like the Obama 2012 campaign did.

10. The Republicans really need to avoid long, bloody primary battles.  That’s easier said than done.  We always talk about the need to bring in fresh talent and break the grip of a moribund Establishment, but that’s tough to do when you’re simultaneously contemplating the need for setting higher bars of entry to keep out “un-serious” candidates.  Some unlikely names honestly earned moments in the spotlight during the 2012 GOP primary season.

But the net result was obvious enough: a wounded candidate with a depleted treasury limping onto the killing fields of Obama’s $100 million character assassination.  It’s a vulnerability built into the election process, and while it’s obviously much easier for an incumbent President to exploit, I wouldn’t count on the absence of a similar killing field in 2016.  The Democrats probably won’t have a savage primary; they might even go into the race with a fairly clear successor for Obama (who may or may not be his current Vice President.)

I don’t see a simple, pat answer to correcting the primary process.  It’s not the only reason Romney lost the general election, and the party is potentially well-served by a vigorous contest that produces the best, strongest general election candidate.  So let’s have one of those next time, not a meat grinder.

11. Lastly, let’s avoid the temptation to over-analyze any single factor as the reason for Obama’s victory or Romney’s defeat.  (Those are actually two separate, but obviously related, topics.)

It has been observed that only a few hundred thousand votes in key swing states gave Obama the victory, but of course he’s portraying it as a huge “mandate” and a tectonic shift in American politics.  Actually, both of those interpretations have merit.  If the tectonic plates are shifted enough, the fate of the candidate does not rest on a few hundred thousand swing voters.  And the power of the Presidency isn’t supposed to grow or shrink based on his popular vote or Electoral College margins of victory.

In order to win a presidential election with concurrent congressional power, many big things must be done right, starting long before the formal beginning of the primary.  In the final weeks of the general election campaign, many small, tactical things must be done right, as well.  The quest for a single unified-field theory of victory is doomed to failure.  Elections are complicated affairs, even when viewed with 20/20 hindsight.