I just finished reading Jonathan Alter’s excellent The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, his account of the 2012 election. Alter’s one of those political reporters, like that late Theodore H. White, who loves digging into presidential campaigns, balancing both the larger themes and narratives with revealing bits of campaign minutiae. If you’re a political junky (and I am one), this book is crack.
Alter’s main point (taking into account his limited historical perspective, ’cause, you know, it just happened) is that the 2012 election was massively consequential, possibly the most consequential election we will see in most of our lifetimes. Alter’s a mainstream journalist, a Washington creature, respected, but someone who represents Beltway wisdom. This is not a bad thing. It does mean that his account is maybe a little more ‘inside baseball’ than most voters need or are interested in. But Alter thinks that 2012 is important because, essentially, the Republican party has gone insane. He thinks the Tea Party is dangerously radical, simple-minded and fanatical. This is, I suspect, what most of the people he interviewed (Washington insiders, mostly), told him. If Barack Obama had lost the 2012 election, Romney’s coattails could easily have cost Democrats the Senate. (The key Senate races were all very very close). And with Republican holding the House and the White House, a radical political agenda could have been realized. Hence the book’s title: Alter sees 2012 as a victory for the Center.
One difficulty, of course, was in persuading the public just how radical Republicans have become. Non-partisan pollsters put together focus groups, and asked them to read two documents; President Obama’s economic plan, and the Paul Ryan plan that Governor Romney endorsed. The idea was that this would be a way of measuring voter support for policies. The problem was, most of the people in the focus groups just flat didn’t believe that the Paul Ryan plan was for real. They thought the document they read was too crazy to be genuine.
Most voters don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, and most aren’t immersed in details of policy differences. And most voters are tremendously cynical about politics anyway. I remember, in Utah, the hotly contested Congressional race between Mia Love and Jim Matheson. Essentially it made television unwatchable. For weeks on end. Ad after ad after ad, all of them weird and creepy and idiotic. By the end, I was basically rooting for a lethal two-car collision. Not really, obviously, but I genuinely couldn’t stand either candidate. And these are two very bright, thoughtful decent people. But, in the wake of Citizens United, (a Supreme Court decision striking years of campaign finance restrictions), super-Pacs poured so much into our local, close race, flooding our tiny TV market with noxious advertisements. Mia Love tortured puppies! Jim Matheson murdered kittens! And both had suspiciously close ties to (gasp) China! Blarg. I’m just glad I don’t live in Ohio.
So with all that noise, it was hard for coherent messages, from either side, to cut through. And it didn’t help that the Republican nominating process essentially became this endlessly entertaining reality show. Watch Republicans Debate, it was called, and it made for fine viewing. I didn’t watch all the debates, or even very much of the ones I did follow, but even in short chunks, they were fun. Who was nuttier? Who could pander to the Right most effusively? And what horrible thing could the audiences applaud most enthusiastically. When a moderator pointed out how many people Texas had executed under Rick Perry: applause. When a gay soldier, serving his country with distinction in Afghanistan was introduced, he was booed. And of course idiotic Birther nonsense could never quite be repudiated by anyone, not as long as The Donald stayed in the race.
What we had was a group of fringe candidates cowed by the Republican electorate; afraid of their own voters. It really hurt Mitt Romney the most, frankly, because he had some appear a good deal more conservative than he probably really was. As Alter quotes one source: ‘Mitt Romney spent 70 million dollars to win the Republican nomination over a serial adulterer and a mental patient in a sweater vest.’ Rudely dismissive of the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum? For sure. But aren’t you glad neither of those guys is going to be President?
Romney had to pose as a guy who was as conservative as the other candidates. Jon Huntsman provided a cautionary tale–primary voters just didn’t go for sensible moderates, not in the age of Anti-Obama-Derangement-Syndrome. So who was Mitt Romney? I don’t think it was ever entirely clear what he stood for, aside from being very much in favor of Mitt Romney being elected President. In fact, Alter posits that Romney may have been trying to do something pretty cynical but possibly effective–use his own reputation for mendacity as a plus. It’s as though he was winking at the electorate, saying, in essence, ‘you know I can’t possibly believe most of this nonsense I’m saying. You know me–I flip flop. If elected, though, I’ll govern from the center, as a businessman, as a non-ideological pragmatist.’
And, in fact, that’s all probably true. We know Romney here in Utah; we remember him fondly. He did a wonderful job with the Salt Lake Olympics. He’s a good guy. He’s never seemed terribly ideological. He’s a top business executive, and a decent, honorable, profoundly religious and family-oriented man.
But his economic plan was nuts, completely unworkable. Tax cuts for rich guys just flat don’t trickle down. He could talk about how many jobs he would create if elected, but none of the concrete proposals he made would have grown the economy at all, to any degree whatsoever. Essentially, his pitch was–‘the business community doesn’t like Obama (quite true), and they like and trust me (also true). So elect me, and confidence will increase and the power of American business will turn things around.’ Well, okay, maybe. But if he’d been elected, would he have been able to stand up to the Tea Party? We certainly never saw him try.
The election turned on three factors. First, the Obama team in Chicago was much much more computer savvy than the Romney team in Boston. This proved to be huge. Voters respond to personal appeals, but door-knocking is pretty time-consuming and ineffective. But Chicago put together an amazing data-base, especially in swing states, sorting out which voters might be amenable to a personal appeal and which voters had already made up their minds. Pro-Obama volunteers, armed with that kind of information, might go into a neighborhood of, say, 50 houses, and only knock on 8 doors. But those were the 8 families who might be persuadable, who were perhaps on the fence. Obama volunteers knocked on three times as many doors as Romney volunteers did, but they also were much more focused on which doors should be knocked on. Romney had a huge advantage in media buys, with essentially unlimited super Pac funds to draw on, but the TV ads that resulted were completely ineffective. Folks just tuned ’em out.
Second, though, was perhaps the turning point moment in the campaign; the 47 percent video. This refers to a Romney fundraiser, in Florida, videotaped by a bartender named Scott Prouty. In it, Romney can be (barely) seen and heard saying this:
There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this President no matter what. . . .Those are people who pay no income tax. . . . My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
It’s just not possible for a politician to say something more damaging. For a politician to say that he just doesn’t intend to care about half the electorate? Wow. And in fact, his comments were simply inaccurate. The 47% who don’t pay federal income tax still pay payroll taxes, and sales taxes and property taxes and end up paying a considerably higher percentage of their income to the government than Mitt Romney did. As Alter puts it: “Is the mother of a handicapped child ‘not taking responsibility’ when she accepted help from the government to pay for her child’s physical therapy? Is a senior citizen with few assets ‘acting like a victim’ when she applied to Medicare for nursing home help? Do college students ‘not care about their lives’ when they apply for student loans?” Republicans thought this was a winnable race, because they focused on polls in which Americans said they thought the country wasn’t on the right track. A low number on the ‘right track’ question is very tough for an incumbent to overcome. But the key polling data turned on another question; does the candidate care about me and my family? Mitt Romney lost because a sizable majority of Americans thought he didn’t care, not at all, not about them, certainly. The 47% comment was devastating to the Romney campaign.
Here’s what’s really interesting to me though; the 47% comment was not the part of Romney’s talk that most offended Scott Prouty. It came earlier in the speech:
In my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there. It employed about twenty thousand people, and they were almost all young women between the ages of about eighteen and twenty-two or twenty-three. They were saving to potentially becoming married, and they worked in these huge factories that made very small appliances. And we were walking through these facilities, watching them work, the number of hours they worked each day, the pittance they earn, living in dormitories with little bathrooms at the end. The rooms, they had ten or twelve girls per room–three bunk beds on top of each other. . . . And around this factory was a huge fence with barbed wires and guard towers. And we said ‘gosh, I can’t believe you, you know, keep these girls in.’ And they said, ‘no no no, these are to keep other people from coming in.’
That’s the line that really got Scott Prouty steamed.
And here’s the irony. George Romney, running for President in 1968, lost, essentially, because he said that the American people were being ‘brainwashed’ in respect to Vietnam. In other words, the official line about Vietnam–‘it’s going well, we’re winning, the South Vietnamese love us’ was a load of hooie. But the line ‘the fences are to keep other job seekers out’ is equally nonsensical. George Romney lost because he told the truth, because he rejected the ‘official word’ about Vietnam as nonsense. Mitt Romney lost because he believed, or at least said he believed, official nonsense about that factory. He lost because he believed in a piece of commie propaganda, basically.
The other irony is this: globalization can be defended. My son, the economist, has convinced me that that factory in China, horrible as we would find it here, is actually benefiting China, and even benefiting the young women who work there. The pittance they receive at that factory may well be better wages than they could receive elsewhere. It’s possible to make a case for globalization. But in an election in a tough American economy, people want to hear about American factories opening and hiring. They don’t want to hear about how great it is for American multinational corporations’ bottom lines to have Chinese sweatshop factories make I-Pads.
But the final factor in this election was this: the President won because he should have won. Because he’s basically done a pretty good job. Alter says the election became a referendum on Romney, who lost because he was found wanting. I disagree. I think people decided Obama hadn’t done half badly, all things considered. Granted, the US economy wasn’t in great shape last year, and it’s not in great shape today. But our economy took a bigger hit in 2008 than it did in 1929. It was never realistic to think that it could recover all that quickly.
And it was a world-wide financial collapse. And when we look at other countries affected by it, we see most of Europe choosing austerity policies similar to those recommended by Governor Romney. And those policies have not worked. The US has recovered more quickly and more completely than most of the other countries hammered by the crisis. So it’s hard to say that Obama’s policies have failed. It would be more accurate to say that his policies haven’t worked as well as we might have hoped.
The President asked for four more years. I think the electorate was wise in choosing to give them to him. And when I say that I’m proud to have voted for him, I don’t mean to imply that Mitt Romney would have been a disastrous President, under other circumstances. He’s a good man, a decent, honorable man. But he never did stand up to extremists in his own party, and that cost him dearly. Anyway, that’s Alter’s conclusion, and it’s one I agree with.