Governor Mitt Romney lost on Tuesday not because the country is divided, but because he failed to show how he would be more competent and relevant to today’s problems than is President Barack Obama. Faced with a Republican candidate who thought it was a fine idea to run stubbornly on a grab-bag of abstract ideas come hell and (last week) high water, Americans stuck with the guy who has been in the trenches with them for the past four years, for better or worse. Americans chose, but they sure didn’t benefit from a great choice.
Romney’s proposals to grow the economy were fivefold: tax cuts, energy exploration, cutting regulations, cutting the deficit, and freer trade. There is nothing wrong with any of these, except for two flaws. The first is that some of these issues were not top of mind with voters. The second is that, on some others, Romney’s suggestions seemed to ignore reality. When President Reagan ran on federal tax reform, for example, the top income-tax rate was 70 percent; today it’s half that. Moreover, back then, people still had to do their taxes with paper and pencil, and they became outraged by the complexity and the unfairness. Today, software does people’s taxes within minutes. Yes, people remain outraged about corporate unfairness—but they don’t see it so much manifested through the tax code as through recent financial-industry bailouts, a topic Romney addressed exactly once, in the first debate.
On energy, Americans are all for exploration at home. But we’re already doing much more oil and gas drilling than we were four years ago, except in places where state and local politicians think voters oppose it. That’s federalism. Moreover, people want exploration done safely, especially after the BP blowup two years ago. This explains why Romney’s comment in another debate—that it’s outrageous for the federal government to expect companies to protect a wildlife refuge from the effects of nearby oil development—fell flat with moderate voters.
Voters are interested in deficit reduction, or at least claim to be. But Romney never offered specifics on his plans to cut spending.
Meanwhile, as Romney stuck to his talking points, stuff happened—most vividly, Hurricane Sandy, viscerally highlighting why we sometimes need a strong federal government, which isn’t the same thing as big government. But before the storm, Romney hadn’t explained his view on what the federal government should or shouldn’t do—whether in disaster recovery, infrastructure investment, or much of anything else. Last year, Romney argued in a GOP primary debate that the states should handle disaster relief. Last week, his campaign claimed that he hadn’t said that. When Romney should have been looking like he could handle a disaster like Sandy as president, his staffers were bickering with the press over what was or wasn’t a flip-flop.
More important, though, was something else that had happened before Sandy descended: the economy began to recover. Romney, who touted his understanding of free markets and free people, should have understood that this would happen, and that people would notice it. Housing prices couldn’t fall forever; they had to hit bottom eventually and start inching up. When people saw, or thought they saw, that the worst was over, they ventured out and started spending money again. Romney never acknowledged that free markets were doing what they were supposed to do—correct themselves, regardless of who was in the White House.
Romney’s bet that Americans frustrated with the economy would turn Obama out of office would have worked only if Americans didn’t believe that the recovery was happening—and then only if Americans blamed Obama for it. But people understand that the economy is still suffering from the impact of the bursting, six years ago, of the biggest credit bubble in our lifetimes. Romney’s blaming Obama for the continued economic fallout seemed out of touch and ideological.
Issue by issue, it all added up to a perception that electing Romney meant electing someone who would ignore what was actually happening to push solutions to what he would like to be happening. For younger voters who helped decide this election, their childhood, teenage, and young-adult experience with the national GOP has not been very positive. They’ve lived through the real or perceived incompetence of the Bush era, economic and otherwise. Romney had to overcome this memory in order to win, but he never seemed to understand that it was even an issue.
Tuesday night starting at 6:30, I turned off the television, radio, Twitter, and everything else. At around midnight, outside my window, I heard cheering and screaming from Times Square and from Rockefeller Center, and I knew who had won. When exuberant young people can mean only one thing, it’s a bad sign for the GOP.
Republicans need to realize something: Barack Obama didn’t get young people so enthusiastic about electoral politics that they take pictures of themselves voting and gather in major squares to watch election results come in. George W. Bush did. When it comes to attracting young voters, Republicans’ major problem isn’t minority demographics or social issues. It’s that Republicans are still living with Bush’s legacy. They don’t even seem to realize it.