November 8, 2012

Thoughts on the Election and the Future

In the wake of the presidential election, conservatives, right-leaning libertarians, and Republicans more generally are in a state of discontent and disbelief. For many in these groups Barack Obama represents the antithesis of everything they believe. As such, the 2012 election was supposed to be a sort of vindication for the right. It was supposed to be the de-throwning of an overhyped progressive politician.

In the aftermath of the results, the story seems to be that Republicans have lost touch with the American electorate. Right-leaning pundits are already pontificating on how Republicans might bring in Hispanics. Left-leaning pundits argue that Republicans have lost young voters, single women voters, and minority voters because they have mischaracterized these voters as dependents of the government. Some have even suggested that Republicans have lost the war of ideas.

Don't believe the hype. The narrative is misplaced.

After every election, there is significant over-reaction with respect to the losing side. In 2004, Democrats were in a state of disbelief that they could not defeat George W. Bush. There were some on the left that openly questioned the future of the Democratic Party if they could not defeat Bush. In addition, when exit polls following that election showed that Bush was bolstered by voters who thought "social issues" were important, members of the Democratic Party began to openly pander to voters in this regard, emphasizing that they too shared the values of the majority of American voters.

Yet 2004 wasnít the end of the Democratic Party. Following the overreach of President Bush in the aftermath of his re-election on issues such as Social Security reform and the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the Democrats took control of the legislative branch.

According to many pundits, President Obama's landslide in 2008 swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. It was now Republicans that were out of touch and incapable of winning elections. But this narrative was wrong as well. The Republicans failed to win the White House in 2008 because George W. Bush was incredibly unpopular, President Obama proved to have an excellent campaign operation, John McCain was not a good candidate for president, and McCain's vice presidential choice was even worse than the candidate himself. Oh, and the economy collapsed just a few short months before the election.

In 2010, Republicans made historic gains in the House of Representatives, a stinging rebuke to President Obama and the first two years of his presidency. But somehow two years later the Republicans are incapable of winning national elections and competing for the presidency?

The most fictitious narrative that emerged in the aftermath of the election is that the Republicans lost the war of ideas. This could not be further from the truth.

When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, the move generated a significant amount of conversation about new dynamics of the race. The choice of Ryan was nearly universally seen as turning the election from a referendum on President Obama into an election about ideas. But while that prediction was prevalent, the debate never came. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaigned on reforming Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code. Romney often campaigned with a debt clock and talked about ensuring that the government did not spend more than in took in. And, much to my own dismay, he similarly wanted to engage the president in a debate about trade with China.

Meanwhile, the president's campaign consisted of a large-scale character assassination of Mitt Romney. The Obama campaign made Romney out to be a heartless, rich, corporate takeover artist who did not care about anything (including American voters), except for the bottom line. In addition, the campaign claimed that Romney was waging a war on women; a war so harsh that Romney wanted to deny free contraceptives to co-eds! Obama never discussed plans for entitlement reform or tax policy other than the obligatory claim that he would raise taxes on the rich. Toward the end of the campaign he began to claim that he would be willing to make a grand bargain -- something he had failed to do for four years, including two of which that would have required very little bargaining with the opposite party at all.

So how did President Obama win? He won because he successfully defined Romney as out-of-touch to the average voter. He won because his campaign team proved to be extremely effective four years after hype surrounding the mythical hope and change wore off. His campaign ground game produced the turnout that liberals expected, pollsters picked up on, and Republicans were reluctant, or unwilling, to see. But make no mistake; President Obama did not win on ideas.

Finally, the discussion of demographics is particularly ignorant. Demographics can have an important impact on elections, but they do not do so exogenously. In 1980, many thought that President Reagan would lose Texas in the presidential election. Today, Texas is a Republican stronghold. Some argue that it wonít be for long and that the Republican Party is going to lose the presidential elections of the near future because of growing Hispanic populations in Texas and growing populations of young, college age professionals in places like Virginia and North Carolina. But this assumes that these voters are guaranteed to vote for Democrats. Those are the current voting patterns, but they needn't be the case and the Republicans donít necessarily have to radically alter their message to appeal to these voters.

I know this because I am a highly educated young voter who holds many of the same views of fellow highly educated young voters on social issues. I support same sex marriage. While I am personally opposed to abortion, I do not favor government intervention to impose those preferences. I support immigration reform that would make the path to citizenship easier, not harder, especially for high-skilled immigrants.

Despite these characteristics, I still predominantly vote Republican. I do so because (a) I believe in economic freedom, and (b) I believe government intervention is antithetical to both social and economic freedom. For example, I recognize that social liberties do not require that the government force insurers to provide contraceptives at zero out-of-pocket cost. I recognize that even though I am opposed to a ban on abortion, this does not imply that I should support government funding of abortion. I recognize that lower taxation and more economic freedom is the best path to economic growth and prosperity. I recognize that discussions about whether we need more or less regulation are asinine and that the metric for assessing regulation requires an analysis of the incentive structure it creates. I recognize that equality of opportunity, rather than outcome, is paramount to a free society. And along these lines, I recognize that perhaps more important than any other issue concerning both economic and social freedom, equality of opportunity with regards to education is the civil rights issue of our day and that such equality can only exist when there is competition among schools and parents have the freedom of choice.

Republicans have not lost the battle of ideas because there has been no such battle -- at least not in recent political discourse. But the Republicans need not wait for the debate to come to them. They should lead the charge. They should promote tax reform and explain the role of such reform in generating economic growth. They should lead on school choice. And they should emphasize that greater social freedom implies less government intervention.

I believe in free markets and free people. Articulating the ideas behind that belief is the key to success. If you donít believe me, look at other countries. Canada and Sweden are two notable examples that have moved toward, not away, from freer markets in recent decades. Sweden even has school choice. Countries throughout the world are lowering corporate income taxes. The financial crisis has merely masked part of this trend.

Freedom, both economic and social, is a powerful message and one the Republicans need to more fully embrace and certainly better articulate. But one cannot win on message alone. Republicans need to become better organized and run more efficient campaigns to turn out voters who believe in these ideas. In the meantime, do not despair about the future of the party or of the country.

Posted by Harrison Bergeron at November 8, 2012 11:20 AM

Great rant. It seems that you, like I, don't vote for Republicans so much as againstDemocrats - as a counterweight to their greater tendency toward the welfare state. And now we see where that got us.

I disagree with your characterization of Governor Palin, but this is inconsequential. McCain and the financial bubble were bigger problems. Combined with the same dynamic we saw Tuesday, they were bound to lose.

And one caution: Beware of promoting "equality of opportunity" as alternative to equal outcome. Equality of human beings is an unnatural state, requiring state intervention to achieve. Equal treatment under law is the moral principle we must promote.

I'm feeling better after reading this. Y'all?

Posted by: johngalt at November 8, 2012 1:21 PM

Second that, brother jg!

Posted by: Ellis Wyatt at November 8, 2012 2:30 PM

A stock line in this house when somebody says Feeling better:

Waiter (John Cleese): Ah, good afternoon Sir, and 'ow are we today?

Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones): Better...

Waiter: Better?

Mr. Creosote: Better get a bucket. I'm going to throw up!

I guess I am coming around, but you might wanna keep that bucket handy...

Posted by: jk at November 8, 2012 3:46 PM

And I'll second jg on Governor Griz. An admittedly imperfect candidate, she added spark to a dull ticket and a philosophical center to one that was rudderless. I don't yearn for her return to the electoral stage, but she was not the worst candidate on that particular ticket.

Powerline (++NaCl) suggests that ticket might have won in 2012.

Posted by: jk at November 8, 2012 4:00 PM

This IS a great rant. I'm going to excerpt part of it for my blog because it's perfect. Am I cheerful yet? No, not when JK is still down, but the words have been coming.
A right wing friend has completely disavowed a left wing (actually - apolitical yet Obama supporter) friend. Both want me in the middle and rather than step aside, I have stepped in.

Yes - I understand completely why she no longer wants to be friends with you.....you clearly do not believe in freedom, in low taxes, in less govt intervention, or in anything she, as a small business owner needs to survive. Yes, I can understand why she would stop investing with you. How could she when you don't believe in free markets? Oh you say you do believe? You don't show it when you vote for people like Obama.

Posted by: Terri at November 8, 2012 5:56 PM

Outstanding rant. To quote John Paul Jones, "I have not yet begun to fight." By all means, let's have the fight.

Posted by: Boulder Refugee at November 8, 2012 10:08 PM | What do you think? [6]