Myth three is that the Republicans lost because Romney was a lousy candidate. A Republican capable of winning the Massachusetts gubernatorial election--not to mention one capable of enacting the cost-saving health care policy advocated by the Heritage Foundation--is not devoid of talent. And were his oft-discussed personality flaws any worse than Richard Nixon's?
To put it bluntly: Either the Romney campaign never had a chance, or it blew it through early strategic choices. I believe that, while it is never easy to take on an incumbent, the Romney campaign lost whatever chance they had because of early mistakes.
Whenever you hear politicians say an election is not about the party, you can be sure it is about the party. The Romney campaign had some serious shortcomings, but its major errors were made in the primary, when it miscalculated how much red meat it could feed their voracious base and still win in November. Either it overestimated how damaged Obama would be by the bad economy or they overestimated how much damage Romney could sustain in the primaries and still recover. Either way, the underlying fault lies with the Republican Party's increasingly radical policies, which placed Romney in the perilous position of reconciling the concerns of the independents needed to win the general election with the demands of primary voters who had been promised the moon.
Twelve months ago Stuart Stevens, Romney's strategist, told Robert Draper, "The economy is overwhelmingly the issue. Our whole campaign is premised on the idea that this is a referendum on Obama, the economy is a disaster, and Obama is uniquely blocked from being able to talk about jobs." Stevens came up with a clever refrain--"Obama Isn't Working"--but never produced a strategy to make this a one-issue election, instead opening the door for Obama to talk about what he had done to save jobs and to contrast himself with Romney, who had sent them overseas when he ran Bain.
In 1968, Richard Nixon evaded the press, never divulging his secret plan for Vietnam or explaining how he would restore law and order by quelling antiwar and civil-rights protests. But he didn't have to. Those two dominant issues were answered by Nixon's strong track record on foreign policy and the overwhelming perception of the Republican Party as the party of law and order.
In contrast, the Republican Party of 2012 does not have a solid track record on the issues of the day, including immigration, Medicare, and aid to education as well as job growth. When Romney picked Paul Ryan over Chris Christie for vice president, I assumed they would soon announce a revised Romney-Ryan budget to move toward the center and jettison the most politically damaging parts of a very unpopular budget. Instead they avoided discussing the budget at all, save for protests that it was too "wonky" or complicated for voters to understand.
The business-school star who excelled at strategic planning at Bain has failed to plan ahead on his own campaign. James Carville's famous credo, "the economy, stupid," helped keep the 1992 focus on the economy, which was possible only because Bill Clinton had developed reasonable policies on crime, welfare, and abortion that protected him against an ambush on social issues on his way to battle on the economy. If an army knows the grounds on which it wants to fight, it needs to suppress enemy fire on the march to its preferred battlefield.
This is why I believe some of the strategists are overstating the bump after the first debate. The Romney campaign was criticized publicly and often for allowing the Obama campaign to define him. If, however, Romney's performance in Denver led to a winning swing in his direction, it validates the idea that Obama's attacks on Romney's record and character were better answered in the debate, when people had started to pay closer attention. I don't buy that argument; if Romney was right to wait, then John Kerry's campaign was right to ignore the swiftboating attacks during the summer of 2004, too.
From the day he clinched the nomination, I kept wondering why Romney didn't distinguish his political identity from his party's, just as Bill Clinton showed he was willing to challenge special interests within his party by publicly criticizing Sister Souljah's lyrics in front of Jesse Jackson.
Stuart Stevens is a veteran of the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns, but he did not appear to appreciate the difference between the political terrain in 2004 and 2012. In 2004, when Democrats painted Vice President Dick Cheney as a profiteering military contractor, Stevens invited them to "Bring it on!" The attacks on the VP only served to fire up the conservative base and keep the focus on the Republican-friendly issue of national security.
Well, letting Obama "bring it on" in 2012--when the president's campaign hammered Romney as a rich, heartless financier--didn't fire up the Republican base and keep the focus on jobs. Thanks to super PACs aligned with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, millions of dollars had already been spent during the primaries attacking Romney for the way Bain left employees without jobs or pensions. As I learned in 1992 when I worked with the Clinton campaign, early mud washes off slowly.
A politician's personal character is a moral firewall; it reassures people about a candidate's past record or the unsavory planks of his party's platform. People do assume that wealthy people like Romney are smarter and work harder than most others. They also, as Pew research has revealed, consider the very rich more greedy than others. I confess to being totally unable to explain why Romney waited so long to talk about his church and community service, or why someone who wanted to be president wouldn't have closed his Cayman Islands and Swiss bank accounts before he became a candidate.
People "envy up and scorn down," as the Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske explains. People who envy Romney's wealth and lifestyle may also wonder if he scorns them. Note how often Democrats characterized Romney as thinking that voters are "too dumb to notice" when talking about the details of Ryan budget.
The civil war in the Republican Party has already begun. I expect the big push for Republican rebranding to occur at the state and local levels, where governance is critical to anyone with long-term national ambitions. Look for Republican governors to fight for programs they need to govern. (Senators build identities and raise money on issue positions, not performance, and are far slower to change.) I believe that Govs. Christie and McDonnell went further than necessary in their praise of President Obama because they wanted to distance themselves as fast as possible from a Republican budget that would slash funding for FEMA and turn disaster relief over to the states.
After Walter Mondale lost the 1984 election, the Democratic Party, led by governors in the Democratic Leadership Council, moved toward the center because enough Democratic politicians recognized that the fundamental problem was the party, not the candidate or his campaign. Let's see if enough Republicans can see through the rationalizing myths to save their party in the same way.