Look, I didn’t plan to do too much celebratory/mean-spirited “mocking the losers” stuff after Tuesday, besides of course joining in my favorite new American Electoral Tradition, “spending Wednesday retweeting funny pre-election tweets from people who were really wrong.” But this Jay Cost column in the Weekly Standard is full of so much delightful Republican bubble analysis, and it has such a remarkable prescription for the party as a whole, that I think it deserves a quick look.
The headline is “Barack Obama and the Triumph of Identity Politics.” “Identity politics” is a conservative term for “attracting the votes of women and minorities.” (Mitt Romney’s explicit plan to turn out as many white people as possible is usually not considered “identity politics” for reasons you can probably figure out on your own.)
First, we establish that Obama has no mandate:
Barack Obama is now the first president in American history to win a second term with a smaller share of the electoral vote, a smaller share of the popular vote, and a smaller aggregate vote than when he was first elected. There are still votes to be counted, but as of this writing he actually has fewer votes than George W. Bush won in 2004.
That’s all true, though the last bit is liable to change as the rest of the votes are counted. It’s also true that Obama is now the first president to get at least 50 percent of the national popular vote in two elections since … well, what do you know, Reagan.
Obama’s victory was apparently ensured by depressing the white vote and playing to his base “with a level of intensity rarely seen in the modern era”:
“The war on women” was a prime case in point. The idea was to maximize turnout for the president’s core groups by focusing on identity politics, encouraging them to come out and vote against a fictitious GOP bogeyman who would suppress their rights to vote, deport their friends and neighbors, deny them Medicare, ship their jobs overseas, raid their pensions, and eliminate their access to contraception. And it worked.
Ok, Jay, the only one of those examples that is actually about the “war on women” thing is the last one, and this fictitious GOP bogeyman you describe is actually “the platform of the Republican Party.” The Republicans explicitly attempted to suppress Democratic voting in multiple states, the party nominee’s immigration plan involved making life for immigrants so miserable that they’d voluntarily “deport” themselves (and while he never revealed an actual immigration plan his numerous statements on “enforcement” basically gave you a good idea of what his would entail), and the party’s vice-presidential nominee authored a plan to eliminate Medicare and replace it with vouchers. Also, nearly every Republican, including the nominee, supported making access to contraception more expensive and difficult for many women, and the whole “war on women” thing was also about the fact that a shocking number of non-fictitious Republican candidates this year expressed offensive and bizarre ideas about rape while they were trying to make arguments for banning abortion entirely. (A position Romney claimed not to support but one that he said he’d happily sign on to given the opportunity.) The GOP made themselves into bogeymen, the Obama campaign just effectively pointed this out.
Then, Cost explains that Obama’s strategy was to make Romney unappealing to “voters [Obama] could not win — namely, lower-to-middle class, socially conservative whites who have disapproved of the president for four years.”
This strategy has shades of the Bush 2004 campaign, but with an important difference. While Bush played to the value voters and attacked Kerry, he also campaigned on something positive: he had kept us safe after 9/11, and he would continue to do so. There was no such positive message coming from Obama, at least none to be taken seriously.
Hahaha oh yes Bush’s “positive message” in 2004 — “I kept you safe [AND THIS OTHER GUY WHO HATES AMERICA WON'T].” At least we’re acknowledging Bush’s 2004 campaign, which is what everyone who is old enough to remember that far back probably thought of when Cost wrote, “The idea was to maximize turnout for the president’s core groups by focusing on identity politics …” And speaking of Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, which does not come up again even though this entire column is secretly about it, here is the next paragraph:
The problem, of course, is that Obama will likely learn what Harry Truman discovered in 1949: one might be able to win reelection by ruthlessly splitting the country in half, hoping to collect a fraction of the vote more than your opponent, but one cannot govern after having made such a mess. Much like Truman, Obama enters a second term with no mandate to speak of, and with roughly half of the country intractably opposed to his policies.
Hmm, yes, “Truman” is definitely the first example I think of when I think of a president who won reelection by “ruthlessly splitting the country in half” and then found himself unable to govern.
But now Cost just dives right in to a comforting fiction about the Republicans and the Democrats:
As for Republicans, there is a valuable lesson to be learned here. The Democratic party now dominates the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as well as the wealthiest neighborhoods in the most powerful cities. And yet Republicans are still effectively castigated as the party of the rich. They are not – at least not any more than the Democratic party is. Sure, the GOP favors tax rate reductions to generate economic growth, but the Democratic party has proven itself ready, willing, and able to dole out benefits to the well-heeled rent-seekers who swarm Washington, D.C. looking for favors from Uncle Sam.
Yes, rich liberals like Democrats. And Democrats post-Reagan embraced scuzzy finance people to a disgusting degree. (Though finance people went pretty heavily for Mitt this time.) But Republicans are quite explicitly and proudly the party of the rich as a class. The evidence of this is that rich people consistently vote for them. Let’s look at Fox’s exit polls: Obama won a huge majority of voters whose 2011 household income was under $30,000, and a slightly smaller majority of those whose household income was $30,000-$49,000. Romney beat him in every higher income bracket. Obama won 60 percent of voters whose household income was below $50,000. Romney won 55 percent of those who make more than $250,000. Obama won 54 percent of voters who make less than $100,000, Romney won 54 percent of voters who make more than $100,000.
If Republicans aren’t “the party of the rich,” because people on the Upper East Side like Obama, are rich people in general … too dumb to vote correctly? Are they victims of false consciousness? WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH WYOMING?
It turns out, though, that the Republicans lost because they forgot to nominate a middle-class Midwesterner, like all the rest of their most famous candidates!
The heart and soul of the Republican party remains what it has been for generations – the middle class outside the elite quarters of the Northeast. This is why – in the 80 years between the Civil War and the Great Depression – the GOP almost always nominated a candidate originally from the Midwest: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, and Herbert Hoover. Only three nominees came from the Northeast — Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, who entered the presidency through the vice-presidency, and James Blaine, who lost. Even in the post-war era, the party has found success almost always from outside the Northeast. Dwight Eisenhower was from Kansas by way of Texas. Richard Nixon was a farm boy from California. Ronald Reagan went to college in Peoria, Illinois. George W. Bush’s grandfather was a senator from Connecticut, but he spoke with a folksy Texas twang.
A nominee with this kind of background would have been more able to resist Obama’s demagoguery, and we might well have a new president-elect today.
That “middle class” and “from the Midwest” thing pretty much breaks down in the postwar bit, right? I mean, “Ronald Reagan went to college in Peoria, Illinois.” Boy. When you find yourself writing that, you maybe want to rethink the argument you’re trying to make. And George W. Bush spoke as if he wasn’t from Connecticut. The famous Hollywood movie star and the scion of a powerful Northeastern political dynasty definitely prove your point about how Republicans need to nominate middle-class people from the Midwest if they want to win. (Also obviously when Jay Cost writes “middle class” he means “white middle class.”)
Put simply: identity matters in politics, oftentimes more than anything else. We can view political battles in budgetary terms, or in terms of cultural hot button issues, but one of the most important elements of voting is seeing yourself in the person you elect. It looks to me like Barack Obama convinced would-be GOP voters who never would have supported him to stay home rather than support this “other” fellow, Mitt Romney.
In 2016, the Republicans cannot allow the Democratic party to get away with this tactic again. It must nominate a candidate who resonates, on an essential level, with the values and identity of the heartland. Since World War Two, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush all managed to do that, and each won twice. There is a lesson there for the GOP.
Yes, and how did those Nixon and Bush presidencies work out?
It turns out this is a call for the GOP to do its version of “identity politics” (you may know it as “the Southern Strategy”) better. Cost’s argument is that Romney lost because he was not white enough. And in the future, the GOP must nominate a candidate so white that Democrats cannot “scare” white voters into not voting for him. So I guess Haley Barbour it is.