It's been almost two weeks since the Most Important Election Ever(TM). After years of campaigning and some $6 billion spent on the presidential race alone, nothing has changed. President Obama gets another term; he and his Democratic Senate will have to contend with a Republican House. Three cheers for gridlock!
Armchair quarterbacks like to look at the data set an election provides and extrapolate forward to come up with trends. For instance, because the Republicans lost this presidential election, they are destined to wander for decades in the political wilderness. This argument is based on the demographic reality: to wit, minority groups vote heavily for Democrats, and as these minority groups are growing as a share of the electorate, Republicans will never win another election again.
This argument assumes that Mitt Romney could have been an effective nominee, if only the electorate were different. In a sense this is true, as one could hypothetically restrict the suffrage to ensure Republican victory. But this lets Romney off the hook far too easily. Given our electorate, the Republicans could have run a better nominee. The demographic angle is important, but it's also worth discussing the larger problem facing the GOP. The party no longer seems to know what it stands for.
I base this on the evidence that of the nominees for the Republican party, Romney was arguably the best standard bearer--and he was a very bad one. I'll refrain from my usual insistence that Ron Paul ought to have been the nominee; plainly, the party faithful aren't interested in sound money and non-interventionism. Paul articulates a coherent vision, but it's not one the party is interested in embracing at this moment in history. There's a lesson here to be sure: it's possible that a GOP that wasn't wedded to the warfare state would do better in the polls, but the neo-con establishment isn't even willing to consider such heresy.
The reason Romney was such a mediocre nominee is that, like his party, he lacked principles. He had taken both sides on virtually every important issue; his flip-flops made John Kerry seem like a paragon of consistency. During the race for the Republican nomination, he ran to the right when confronted with his liberal stances on everything from abortion, to guns, to healthcare. In the debates with the President, he ran back to the middle, in the process, revealing himself to be a duplicitous panderer. Only an abysmal performance by the President in the first debate--and an amusing overreaction from the panicked leftist media--prevented the election from being a landslide. In hindsight, it was never really much of a race.
As an aside, less discussed was the inconsistency of Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan. Ostensibly a fiscal hawk, Ryan had voted for every spending increase during the Bush presidency. The debt crisis would have eventually sapped the surplus, but Medicare Part D and an expensive war in Iraq accelerated the trend. The Republican refusal to see the Bush years as the disaster they were still hurts the party. Clinton's appearance at the Democratic convention reminded Americans of better times, thereby helping Obama. Bush, meanwhile, was far away from his party's convention. Like Jimmy Carter, the electorate sees Bush II as a hapless loser.
Back to the story: Romney's defeat is somewhat surprising in that, by all accounts, Obama has been a lousy president. His policies have managed to obscure the nature of our recession, but a meaningful recovery has failed to materialize. But one does not switch horses midstream without a compelling reason. Romney failed in this respect. His vague bromides to leadership and job creation simply weren't persuasive.
This is partially because the GOP has but one answer to the issue of jobs. For Republicans, it's always 1980, and there's nothing that can't be fixed with a good tax cut. I'm not enthusiastic about paying taxes, but it's simply not the case that cutting taxes always leads to job growth. Cutting income tax, moreover, has limited appeal for those who do not pay income tax. At present, our overwhelming debt is the largest obstacle to economic growth. Neither party possesses a credible plan to reduce it, let alone pay it off.
The best Romney could offer by way of fiscal responsibility was the possibility of a balanced budget during the last year of his second term. Colloquially, the Republicans were peeing on our legs, insisting that it was raining. If this is the best the GOP can do, I can't see the point of having a conservative party. It may be that anything more radical would be unpalatable to the American people, but when faced with two profligate parties, the citizens were behaving rationally in voting for the man who promised them more things. For if the debt matters, we are doomed--with either party. But if the debt doesn't matter, why would we not allow the government to spend as much money as possible?
Until the Republicans can make a coherent case against debt, and offer a practical program to reduce it, they offer nothing to fiscal conservatives. Naturally, the take away has not been to reexamine the ideological underpinnings of the movement, but to flout neo-con Marco Rubio as the Great Hispanic Hope to turn the party's electoral fortunes around. Not for nothing is the Republican Party called the Stupid Party.