No sooner had the electoral thundercloud arrived last Tuesday than some Republicans began searching it for a silver lining. It is an understandable impulse after a defeat to want to minimize its magnitude and rationalize away its causes. But there are no comforting augurs for Republicans in President Barack Obama’s victory. It was crushing and ominous, and it’s pointless to try to deny it. Republicans are comforting themselves with a few arguments, none of which is persuasive.
It was a close election. Yes, but that doesn’t quite capture it. A better way to think of it is as a narrow landslide. The president won by more than two points nationally, a big margin by contemporary standards. The Electoral College magnified it into a 332-206 stomping. While just 400,000 more votes in four key states would have won the election for Mitt Romney, two can play that game. John Kerry lost by about 120,000 votes in decisive Ohio in 2004, and Al Gore by 500 votes in decisive Florida in 2000 (while he won the national popular vote). These, by the way, are the only two presidential elections Democrats have lost in the past six.
This year, Republicans only managed to take back Indiana and North Carolina from 2008. And Obama had coattails. Democrats picked up two Senate seats in a year when Republicans dreamed of taking back the majority because so many Democratic seats were up. They picked up about seven House seats despite re-districting that tilted the playing field in the GOP’s direction. Republicans had better hope they don’t suffer defeats in many more such close elections.
n Mitt Romney was a weak candidate. Sure, Romney was flawed. He was never a natural politician, and his private-equity background amplified negative perceptions of Republicans. But Romney was clearly the strongest of the candidates in the primary field in the run-up to a winnable general election. What does that say about the party? The Washington Post points out that in almost every important Senate race, the Republican candidate actually underperformed Romney.
n Romney was too moderate. No doubt, Romney is ultimately a pragmatic problem-solver. But he ran on arguably the most conservative platform since Barry Goldwater. He won conservatives handily, 82 percent to 17 percent. But conservatives are only 35 percent of the electorate. He lost moderates, who were 41 percent of the electorate, by 56-41. Presumably, they weren’t voting against him because they thought he wasn’t conservative enough.
n The GOP has a strong bench. True enough. The party has talented up-and-coming politicians, but no one can know if any of them will make a compelling presidential candidate. Or know that Democrats won’t have a compelling new candidate of their own.
n Obama didn’t run on anything. To be sure, the president’s second-term agenda was amorphous at best, except for rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the rich. Still, the direction was clear. He chose not to take an obvious opening to moderate after the 2010 elections. Instead, he moved left. He ran on an unabashed social liberalism seeking to impose an unprecedented contraception mandate on employers — including religious employers — and successfully sold it as a natural extension of the rights of women. He ran on a scorching economic populism that worked in the Midwest. He made his overall vision of government aggrandizement clear enough, and still prevailed.
n The president doesn’t have a mandate. No, he doesn’t, but who cares? He doesn’t need a mandate to consolidate Obamacare, get some kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants, appoint a few more Supreme Court justices and unleash his regulators.
n Republicans will benefit from a period of soul-searching. Well, they might. On the other hand, it could just as easily be a period of divisiveness, folly and self-delusion.
Denial is a natural stage of grief. It’s a psychological mechanism that is of no use to a political party, though. Republican clarity must begin with a frank assessment of the Debacle of 2012.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.