As I write this, it is approaching midnight, and it is clear that President Obama has very narrowly won re-election.
I mean very narrowly. As I write, he is only one-tenth of a percentage point above Mitt Romney in the popular vote count (49.3% to 49.2%). Many votes from the West Coast are still being added to the totals, so surely Obama’s share will rise, but it is quite likely he will win with less than 50% of the vote. The Electoral College will be more lopsided, but the three states that tipped the election—Florida, Virginia, and Ohio—look likely to be won by Obama by similarly thin margins, one percentage point or less.
This is still a massive failure for the Romney campaign. They failed to “expand the map” and put any states in play beyond the core swing states. They didn’t win Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania, or Iowa, or Colorado. They didn’t even get close. As it is, they basically spent a billion dollars to shift the electoral votes of Indiana and North Carolina, which ought to have been uncontested for the Republicans to begin with. Given all the advantages the Republicans had going into a race against a weak incumbent, this is an enormous missed opportunity.
The result for the Senate races is an even greater disaster because it is so unnecessary. The Republicans lost two races that should have been gimmes. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana were sunk by their comments supporting a ban on abortion in cases of rape. The other big Republican losses—Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and George Allen in Virginia—were establishment Republican retreads who were dependent on the presidential campaign to lift them. So while some are already pushing the conventional wisdom that wild-eyed “Tea Party candidates” cost Republicans the Senate, it is really the establishment and the religious right that bear the blame.
As tempting as it is to launch into recriminations—and there will be plenty of time for that in the coming months—I don’t think that is the real story of this election. The real story is not about the Republicans, nor even about independent voters. It is about the Democrats. The story, as best I can tell right now, is that they turned out in large numbers, much larger numbers than most of us on the right expected.
My election prediction from a few days ago was comprehensively wrecked, but at least I clearly named the premise that was the basis for my prediction. The statistics that showed the race to be evenly matched or gave Obama a slight lead, particularly in the swing states, were based on polls in which Democrats had a massive turnout advantage, as good as or better than their turnout advantage in 2008. Those of us who dismissed these polls believed it was not realistic for Democrats to enjoy the same advantage this year, if only because Republicans would not be as demoralized as they were when we had to drag ourselves to the polls to vote for John McCain. Well, we were all wrong. We’ll have a better idea of the statistics tomorrow, but I just heard Brit Hume on Fox News talking about a D+6 turnout, meaning that six percentage points more Democrats turned out than Republicans (38% of voters, versus 32%). The advantage in 2008 was D+7. Which means that if the turnout had been even slightly closer, only D+2 or D+3, Romney would have won Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, and he would be the president-elect.
In the military, they say that “the enemy gets a vote.” You can prepare and train and come up with the best plan in the world, but your opponent gets to decide what he will do in response, and he might just figure out how to disrupt your plan. In this case, it’s not a metaphor. The other side—I will firmly resist the urge to call them “the enemy”—literally gets a vote. And they used it.
What is most interesting is that I don’t see any evidence that Republicans were demoralized and stayed home. But Democrats were energized and motivated and came out to the polls in even larger numbers. What I think is hard for many of us on the right to fathom is: why?
Here, I think I may have been on the right track back when Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate and I tallied up the risks and rewards of this election for both sides. I concluded that Democrats had the most to lose.
“Romney and a Republican Senate would likely get to appoint, and approve, a few more Supreme Court justices. At the very least, this would help maintain the conservatives’ 5-4 majority on the court. At most, it could tip that 5-4 majority into a 6-3 or even a 7-2 majority. The court’s most conservative members—you know, the ones who would have found Obamacare unconstitutional—might even gain a solid 5-member majority. In short, the left could find itself shut out of power in all three branches of government for at least four years—or for a decade or more.
“And that’s just the beginning. What if Romney and Ryan adopt Reaganesque economic policies—and achieve Reaganesque results? Reagan saw the economy dip sharply into a new recession just as he took office—but it started bouncing back sharply in 1982 and kept growing at rates between 4% and 7%, three to four times stronger than today. If Romney-Ryan can get anywhere near that, if the economy springs to life by 2014 and keeps on going, they will be the ones who can run in 2016 on the ‘morning again in America’ theme, growing their congressional majority and—most important of all—validating small-government policies and converting a whole new generation of voters to the cause of free markets.
“You can see the huge upside for the right and the reason why they are so excited. Ryan makes them even more excited, because the prominence of his signature budget plan means that if Romney and Ryan win, they win with a mandate to reform the big middle-class entitlements…. Under entitlement reform, the natural political constituency for big government will shrink—while the natural political constituency for small government will grow.”
What I think happened this year is that Democrats realized the magnitude of these risks. They figured out how much they had to lose, and they rallied in large numbers to preserve the welfare-state status quo. There were no doubt other contributory causes as well. Candidates like Akin and Mourdock provided just enough credibility to the “war on women” guff, and the vilification of Romney’s record in business (ensuring that no businessman of his stature will dare to run any time soon) played to stereotypes about the rich and to the resentments of the poor—and the even greater resentments of middle-class professionals. But the key issue was whether voters wanted to stick to the big-government solutions offered by President Obama in this era of economic crisis. And the left decided that they were really willing to go all out, to fight tooth and nail for the cause of big government.
What this means for advocates of limited government and individual rights is that we have to retrench and change the focus of our political activism. There was a very realistic chance that we could win a major victory to reverse America’s lurch toward socialism on a relatively short, six-year horizon, if we could rack up three election victories in a row, from 2010 through 2014. That is no longer possible, so we’re going to have to work on a deeper level and over a much longer time horizon. It will have to be much longer, because the growth and lawlessness of government will be far more deeply entrenched, as will the culture of hopelessness, dependency, and corruption that it breeds. Moreover, every year in which we make the government bigger and fail to confront the disastrous economics of the welfare state is a year in which the looming crisis of that state grows larger and more intractable.
But as I observed a few months ago, this also means that in winning the election, President Obama doesn’t gain that much. Every crisis he inherited, and a few that he made worse, will still be there.
“Federal entitlement spending isn’t going to be controlled; it’s going to grow even faster once Obamacare comes fully into effect. A Democrat-controlled Senate that has gone three years without producing a budget will go four, five, six, seven years without a budget. If the economy hasn’t responded by now to fiscal and monetary stimulus, it probably won’t do so next year, either. After all, there are many European countries where Obama-like policies have kept growth permanently down at our current, anemic level of 1% to 2% per year and unemployment in double digits….
“In short, if he is re-elected, Obama gets the ‘reward’ of facing all the same problems he has now: a stagnant economy, a runaway debt, a hostile Congress, and a half-dozen foreign policy problems waiting to become a big, intractable crisis. I think Obama still benefits, for the moment, from the fact that the recession hit before he came into office, so people still blame it on his predecessor. But at this rate, he’s likely to re-live George W. Bush’s second term. In 2004, voters gave Bush a second chance to solve the mess in Iraq. By the end of 2006, as the chaos and insurgency just kept getting worse, they wrote him off, and even the success of the surge in 2007 came too late to make people reconsider. Obama faces the same problem. Voters may give him a second chance on the economy, but if it doesn’t improve sharply in another year or so, he will get the blame, and he may finish out his second term with Bush-like approval ratings down around 30%–and Joe Biden as his successor.”
Moreover, Republicans retain several long-term advantages. Note, for example, that in the real home base of the Tea Party movement—the Republican majority in the House of Representatives—Democratic gains were inconsequential. The same largely holds true for the “Tea Party Caucus” in the Senate, which will gain at least two new members (Jeff Flake from Arizona and Ted Cruz from Texas). And then there is the widely noted fact that the strongest Republican candidates were not the ones who were running for president—what a crowd of charlatans!—but rather the next generation coming up. Which is to say: Ryan-Rubio 2016.
But we have to gird ourselves for a much bigger, longer, deeper battle than we had been hoping for. In the next few days, I will begin reassessing our strengths and suggesting the outlines of the new struggle we are engaged in. We are not and never will be doomed, but we have to resign ourselves to thinking on a decades-long time scale. A battle we had hoped to win for our children is now a battle they will still be fighting when they become adults.
Yet if you have children, you know that they are growing fast and they will become adults and go out into the world we have prepared for them, so you know that giving up just isn’t an option. We must dedicate the coming years to preparing the ground so that they will be fighting a battle they can win.