As I discussed last week, I think Barack Obama will win the election easily. Now, with Mitt’s Romney’s gross miscalculation in politicizing the Libyan massacre, thereby failing the 3:00 am phone call test, the election is shaping up as a rout for Republicans. This new reality undoubtedly will affect the campaign’s final days and how both parties will adjust to it.
Republican frustration with Romney for failing to clinch what they have long viewed as a slam-dunk election was already evident among right-wing talk radio hosts even before the Libyan business. On Monday, Rush Limbaugh said, “If the Republican Party cannot win in this environment, it has to get out of politics.” That same day, Laura Ingraham said, “If you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.”
MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough succinctly listed the reasons why conservatives are disappointed with Romney in a Sept. 12 commentary:
Barack Obama has sunk America $5 trillion deeper into debt, has enacted the largest stimulus plan ever, pushed through the biggest health care boondoggle in U.S. history and posted trillion-dollar deficits every year of his presidency.
And yet unemployment is still over 8 percent.
Two-thirds of Americans still think their country is headed in the wrong direction.
And Mitt Romney is still losing.
How can it be that this man who turned around countless businesses, saved the 2002 Olympics and ran Democratic Massachusetts like a pro be the head of such a disastrous campaign?
Who was responsible for burying his moving convention video behind the bumbling bluster of Clint Eastwood?
Who told Mr. Romney to issue a political broadside against the commander in chief the day after a U.S. ambassador was murdered?
And who decided that Romney would use his general election campaign to stand for absolutely nothing? The Wall Street Journal described this ideological listlessness as a “pre-existing decision.” The question conservatives should be asking is whether that strategy was hatched by a misguided consultant or the candidate himself.
This points to a problem I have discussed previously entered this election cycle overconfident of their prospects. As a consequence, electability was not as significant a factor in the primaries as it should have been. Republicans indulged themselves by searching for the purest, most principled conservative to represent them. As the RealClearPolitics poll compilation shows, at different times Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all led in the polls before Romney finally pulled ahead late in the game.
Say what you want about these various competitors for the Republican presidential nomination, but none made their electability a factor in why they deserved it. It was always about how they would push harder to implement the agenda of the party’s most conservative members than the other guys would, whether the issue was abortion, tax cuts, spending cuts, being tough on Russia, terrorists, drugs or whatever.
Only Romney really made electability an issue, but he did so very, very quietly. The reason is that the primary basis of his electability was his moderate record as governor of Massachusetts, where he implemented a health care reform very similar to the one Obama enacted in 2010. The problem is that the protracted Republican primary forced him far to the right and required him to bury or repudiate just about everything he did as governor.
Many political observers nevertheless assumed that Romney would tack to the center at the Republican convention. But since tacking to the center for a Republican means moving to the left, this was not really doable. Romney’s position within the GOP is still too tenuous to allow him the flexibility of doing that. Indeed, given the issues he has emphasized during and since the convention, he is still working to solidify the Republican base, rather than reaching out to independent and undecided voters.
Personally, I suspect that Romney knows that he can’t win the election and is, at this point, trying to protect himself from personal blame for losing an easy election. I think that is one reason why he picked Paul Ryan as his running mate. The right loves him, because to them Ryan is everything Romney isn’t—charismatic, principled, versed in conservative/libertarian philosophy and dogma, detail oriented, charming and so on.
Having Ryan on his right flank means that Romney can’t be blamed for not running the sort of campaign the Tea Party wing of the GOP wanted. But it should have also given Romney the running room to tack to the center. Ryan would keep the natives from getting restless while Romney softened his party’s hard edges and put together a winning coalition that must necessarily include moderates. I think it is now too late for that.
In the near term, it is likely that some Romney contributors may hedge their bets by giving to Obama as well. This could even the money disparity between the two campaigns, although I have never thought that Romney’s money advantage was as valuable as commonly believed.
I also think that there will be some shift in the fortunes of Democrats running for House and Senate seats. The more secure Obama looks for re-election, the more Democratic money can be spared to help them. Moreover, I don’t think Democrats have yet fully exploited Republican vulnerabilities on issues such as abortion and sharp cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that Romney and Ryan have promised.
It’s also likely that Democrats will become more engaged in the election and Republicans less so. A Pew poll released this week found sharply rising Democratic enthusiasm after lagging Republicans all year. It is likely that next week’s polls will show a deterioration of Republican support for Romney in light of his Libyan gaffe.
Romney’s reaction to the Libyan crisis shows that not only does he lack the temperament to be president, but has no viable strategy for achieving victory. If there was a better way of turning off moderates than by being sharply partisan at a moment when most Americans wanted nonpartisan unity, I don’t know what it is. Romney deserves to lose.