In The Battle Of Ideas — Election 2012 Was A Thumping

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on November 20, 2012

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Like Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 Election was not overhyped, and by the morning we knew it had packed a wallop, but the full damage assessment was not immediately clear.  People could see the damage wherever they looked but it took more than a week to realize why more and more Republican voices were responding to an election that appeared quite close in the total popular vote with such alarm.  Now that a couple of weeks have gone by we can see that on almost every level the damage for Republicans was worse than it looked initially.    

Republicans held the House in the culmination of a decade long strategy of winning governor’s mansions and state houses allowing them to draw favorable congressional districts, but the good news for Republicans ends there.  Republicans held the House with political tactics, but in the arena of ideas, this was no status quo election.  In nearly every battleground and on nearly every issue the voters rejected the Republican argument.  Republicans now must rethink their policies on immigration, economics, taxes, abortion and contraception, gay marriage, energy and the environment, as well as the Republicans’ reliance on conservative sources of information and analysis, not to mention a full investigation (“a very serious proctology exam,” to quote former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour) of the party’s campaign mechanics.

In the breadth of ideological repudiation of conservatism 2012 may have been a more historically important election than was 2008.  After the 2008 election, Republicans asserted that despite electing Barak Obama as President America is nonetheless a “center-right” nation.  But after the 2012 election all signs indicate the center of gravity of the electorate is moving to the left. 

This is not a prediction of Democratic electoral success even as far as the next election – there is probably too much of that floating around the punditocracy these days just as there was preceding the 2010 Republican romp, but it does mean Republicans today look a lot like the Democrats after the 1988 where George H. W. Bush defeated another Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis.  And Republicans now need the same kind of ground up re-thinking of their policies that Bill Clinton lead for Democrats through the Democratic Leadership Council.

The rightward swing of the pendulum that gained velocity with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan and that the 1992 and 1996 elections of Bill Clinton merely slowed has reached its full extension and is now returning toward the center.  This was less a case of voters endorsing liberalism (although Washington and Colorado legalizing recreational use of marijuana will be seen as evidence of this) than it was a case of voters rejecting conservative positions on issue after issue.

After the Initial Denials a Long List of Policies to Rethink

The first response to the loss is minimization, pointing to the close popular vote totals in the presidential race — even if this includes a lot of votes in uncontested areas particularly in the Deep South where Barack Obama has never been popular.  Both sides knew going in to this election year that something like 12 states would determine the winner, and that is where they spent their resources and all those super-PAC millions.  Republicans won just one, North Carolina.  Democrats won all the rest including Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Colorado, and of course, Ohio. 

The second line of defense is blaming Mitt Romney for the losses and his hook from stage right was sped up by his press-taped telephone conversation to his funders where he confirmed his belief in his “47%” comments also talking to his funders last spring.  In both instances, Romney blamed the tough election on Obama’s habit of distributing government programs, or “gifts” to constituents. 

The problem for Republicans is that these are not just Romney’s private views.  The comments echo a popular philosophical underpinning of conservative writer philosopher Ayn Rand.  It remains to be seen whether other Republicans who subscribe to the theory that society is divided into a maker class and a taker class, such as Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan, choose to try to find a way to discuss it that is phrased differently to be less offensive to large numbers of voters. 

Blaming Romney does little to explain the losses in senate races in red states, like Indiana, Montana, Missouri, and North Dakota; blue states, like Connecticut and Hawaii; and purple states: Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.  Here the blame is being placed on Tea Party backed candidates saying “stupid” things, such as explaining why they support the anti-abortion language in the National Republican Party Platform adopted at the Tampa convention.     

This is not just the Hispanics, and the young, and women, and the elderly…

Immediately after the vote count, many Republicans candidly admitted that the poor showing among Hispanic voters, 27 to Obama’s 71 percent and on a declining trend dating back to 2000, implied that major change on immigration would be coming.  After spending the election telling us Latino voters care more about other issues like jobs and the economy, Republicans now hope to win back voters by striking a new deal on immigration policy with Democrats. 

This will not be much of a negotiation. After election 2012 Republicans will not put up any sort of credible fight on immigration reform. Latino political groups that supported Obama in 2008 and then were disappointed, patient, and forgiving now get to write the bill of their dreams and see it pass. (We hope it also includes a new voting rights act that addresses length of voting lines for all voters.)  

And this is not just a Hispanic issue.  One of the biggest surprises to emerge from the exit polls was the lopsided vote totals among all ethnic groups.  Leading up to the campaign we were going door-to-door in the lower income apartment complexes as well as middle-class suburbs in highly diverse Fairfax County, Virginia.  Our car contained our friend Fidel, a dark-skinned Cuban immigrant so we believed we had the bases covered with whites, blacks, and Hispanics, but we could have used other languages including Korean, Amharic (Ethiopian language), Persian, and Arabic among others.

Beyond African Americans and Hispanics, the exit polls tell us Obama also won strong majorities of Asians, Jews and Arab Americans; many of these families that we met in the Fairfax suburbs Republicans and Democrats need to carry this deep purple state, were just the sort of small business entrepreneurial strivers Republicans claim to be protecting with their tax cuts for the wealthy, but they are not finding the GOP appealing. 

The traditional white, Southern, Christian, Republican Party is starting to turn off voters who feel excluded from the club or judged and limited by the moral proscriptions.  It is simply no longer cool in the cities and suburbs to oppose gay marriage, contraception, science and mathematics.  By uniting non-white Americans, women, and young voters, the more far sighted Republicans are seeing real danger signs in demographic trends that have been taking shape for several years.  Young voters are more liberal, less white, and news flash: about half of them are women (and mostly unmarried women); all groups that turned out in unexpected numbers to cast votes for Democratic candidates.  

60% Support for Higher Taxes in Exit Polls

The list of Republican issue positions that are now, or should be, under serious re-examination is long and growing, but no issue was more fundamental to this election and to Republican self-identification than economics and tax policy.  For the whole of the election year, actually for longer than that, we have criticized both parties for failure to articulate a clear economic philosophy, but it is for different reasons.  The Democrats have one, but they lack confidence in it and their ability to explain it (with the notable exception of Bill Clinton at the Democratic Convention). 

For some time now the Republicans have had the opposite problem; they have confidence in their economic philosophy, they just don’t have one.  “Supply-side economics,” “trickle-down economics,” “Reaganomics,” had been discredited long before George Bush entered the White House, but after the global economic collapse starting in 2008, the Republicans showed up for the 2012 election with the same old list of estate tax cuts, capital gains tax cuts, personal income tax rate cuts, and vague statements that cutting regulations would spur economic growth.  These may be arguments that carry the day on Fox News and (until the election) in the Weekly Standard, but the rest of America even with an unemployment rate at nearly 8% found little compelling in this case.  Election Day exit polls found 60% support for higher taxes on those earning over $250,000. 

It is difficult to overstate the strategic importance of Republicans losing a tax fight by these proportions.  This fact was lost least of all on conservative commentator and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol when he suggested the weekend after the election that Republicans could reevaluate their faithfulness to opposing all taxes on the rich.

Fox Versus the Facts

By nearly all accounts, these election results came as a surprise to most Republicans.  The question must be asked if Republicans had such weak candidates at the top of the ticket and in key senate races, if their positions were out of step with voters on taxes, abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and they were trailing in polls that accurately predicted the outcome in nearly every one of those battleground states and senate races they lost, how could they not know?  The answer is clear: conservatives have built an empire of misinformation, disinformation and biased news that hid the truth from their own side.  There is a real danger in deciding to limit your world to news sources that consistently prefer an ideological narrative over the search for truth, even to the point of casting science as suspect when it produces inconvenient truths. 

After weeks of outsized predictions of a Republican landslide by many Fox News commentators including Karl Rove who controlled over $200 million in advertising dollars to achieve the result, the curtain on the whole conservative propaganda machine was poetically pulled back by Nate Silver cast as both Toto and Galileo armed with little more than the ability to add numbers together and take their average.  Mathematics, science, public opinion polls all received validation against the doubters two weeks ago.  And after Hurricane Sandy and the even more destructive 2012 election for truth deniers, it is a safe bet that man-made global warming is queuing up behind the fiscal cliff and immigration as an issue that needs immediate action and a new assessment by Republicans.    





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