JACK SPENCER: Beware of making the wrong diagnosis

Debate over why Romney lost the matters because he stood a good chance of winning

Numerous opinions are being voiced in the post election autopsy of Mitt Romney’s loss to President Barack Obama. This type of analysis always takes place after a presidential election. However, the discussion this year is especially pertinent. The debate over why Romney lost matters because he stood a good chance of winning. Under Obama the economy is weak, deficits are skyrocketing, his two stimulus packages were monumental flops and Obamacare remains unpopular. As stated in a previous article, Obama received less votes than former President George W. Bush got in 2004. That wasn’t a small amount, but after eight years of population growth, it shouldn’t have been enough to win if there had been a surge for change among the voters. However, the anti-Obama surge many conservatives foresaw didn’t develop. As usual, those in the mainstream news media offer the familiar diagnosis they always give when Republicans lose. Romney was somehow too conservative, they claim. But that’s a tough argument to back up this year. Nonetheless, we can bet a lot of GOP political advisors will grasp this explanation and hang onto it with a white knuckle grip. In reality it was exactly the type of election scenario GOP advisors who preach moderation should have loved. Here was a vulnerable liberal president facing a well-financed and TV-ready moderate Republican foe. Remember the formula for which these kinds of advisors advocate. They say the GOP candidate should run toward the middle and attract the “all important”  independent voters. Meanwhile, they figure conservatives will hold their noses and vote for the Republican, because they’ll basically have no other choice. This is a lousy, cynical approach to elections. It is based on a devaluation of the core principles the candidate is supposed to be standing up for in the first place. In addition, it attempts to replace the concept of inspiring voters with a dynamic that simply limits their options. But the one option this formula ignores is the voters’ option to refuse to participate at all. Well, this formula was tested in 2012 and was an abysmal failure. Romney did well with independents, however, he failed to attract many among the Republican base and others who just didn’t like Obama. These are the people who might have given Romney the election win. Instead, they gave Obama four more years in the White House by staying home on Election Day. Conservatives will argue that Romney was just too flawed. He wasn’t conservative enough. He ‘d held positions in his past that were distinctly not conservative. Therefore, they say, he couldn’t really be trusted. He didn’t offer the voters enough of a contrast. While all of these observations are true, they really don’t supply a satisfactory answer to the underlying issue. The simple fact is that in 2012, as in most election years, virtually everyone who jumped into the presidential race was a flawed candidate. Look at the field of GOP candidates who competed in the primaries. None of them fully fit the bill. As you review the field keep in mind that candidates need to be more than just a list of positions on issues. They also have to possess the ability to articulate their positions. Ronald Reagan not only held conservative views, he had the ability to express them in a way that attracted broad-based support. He had a vision of America he sold to the public. The closest Romney came to “selling a vision of America” was when he jumped on Obama’s “you didn’t build that” statement about building a business. Here Romney touched on the distinction between an America where individuals control their own destinies, as opposed to Obama’s more collectivist view. However, touching on a vision isn’t the same as fully expressing it. Romney never completed the full portrait. The way his campaign used Obama’s quote most likely appealed to entrepreneurs and independent business owners but not to the broader voter base. Romney’s campaign only scratched the surface of what a more fully developed vision could have accomplished. Reagan understood that virtually everyone, including thousands on government assistance and those stuck at lower income levels, would prefer to control their own destinies. He understood that perhaps the greatest frustration is the frustration that comes from not being able to fulfill one’s dreams. Reagan didn’t have this understanding as the result of focus groups or polling. He simply believed in the nobility of the human spirit. The real key to becoming the “great communicator” was Reagan’s ability to explain what most people already sensed deep down. When Reagan said government wasn’t the solution - it was the problem, he wasn’t just talking about budgets and tax rates. His message to voters was that government had nothing to offer that would fulfill their aspirations and dreams. In fact, he more than implied that an overreaching government tends to block the aspirations and dreams of individuals. Unlike Romney, Reagan used this message as the bedrock of his campaign. It wasn’t a topic that just happened to pop up because his opponent made an ill-advised statement. Amazingly, no candidate since Reagan has been willing to make use of this general appeal. It’s a powerful message because it’s rooted in basic truths. What’s more, it hearkens to the best within us all. Conservatives can’t just sit around waiting for another Ronald Reagan to come along. That might only happen about once every 50 years, if we’re lucky. It should also be remembered that - from the point of view of conservatives - Reagan had a very flawed past as well. His political philosophy evolved. At one time he was an outspoken liberal Democrat. A video of a campaign ad he did for Hubert Humphrey’s Senate campaign in the 1950s can be found on the Internet. Romney and many of the people connected with his campaign probably understand the dangers of big government and its corroding effect on individuals. What’s more, they probably agree with Reagan’s point of view on the subject. So, even as a flawed candidate, Romney could have revived Reagan’s vision and used it in its fullest form, as Reagan did. In the end, what Romney and every candidate since Reagan have lacked is Reagan’s innate belief in average Americans. They - led by teams of GOP advisors - haven’t had enough faith in the aspirations and dreams of their fellow countryman. Put bluntly, they’re too afraid the message would no longer resonate. This was the real significance of Romney’s awkward statement about the 47 percent of voters he couldn’t get - because they don’t pay Income tax. It didn’t cost him the election, as some have claimed, but it was symptomatic of the opportunity that keeps being missed. Average political campaigns look at elections in terms of voters being given promises, with each voting group wanting X,Y or Z. What gets lost is that the best promise to offer is one that awakens Americans to the promises that dwell within themselves. The essence of that promise is more liberty through less government. It’s a promise that appeals across the board, attracting many who don’t think of themselves as conservatives. It’s the most reliable way to reach the voters that most so-called political experts clearly under estimate and misunderstand.   Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.