The First Post-Election Analysis

September 27, 2012

I don’t know who will lose the election, but I do know why. Barring an unforeseen twist, the singular weakness of each candidate is already well-known enough to explain why they didn't win.

Mitt Romney has the narrower path to the White House and, if he loses, an ideological fight will begin in the Republican Party even before President Obama’s victory speech. Conservatives will point to consecutive losses by “moderates” to make their case that the Party needs a true believer to carry the standard. Moderates will say that Romney was pushed too far to the right in the primaries and pin the loss on the ideological demands of the Tea Party. There is some truth to both positions – a candidate needs the enthusiastic backing of his base, and Romney was forced to support a range of unpopular dogma – but both analyses will miss the larger meaning of the loss.

If it happens, I think Romney’s failure as a candidate can be blamed one big shortcoming: He’s not very good at it. He’s not a good politician. Just as the Democrats elevated two bad politicians in a row in 2000 and 2004, neither McCain nor Romney have the personal qualities that help you in a presidential election. Being a candidate for president requires a specific set of skills – and men like Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have it. People like Al Gore, John Kerry, McCain, and Romney (and Hillary Clinton) are much less good at the job. That’s not a comment on their character or fitness for office, just an observation about their skill set.

In addition, Romney’s personality is ill-suited to the task in other ways. He doesn't seem to understand that secrecy (on his income taxes, for instance) or displays of privilege (his car elevator renovation or Cayman Islands accounts) are not compatible with earning the trust of middle class voters. That speaks to both his political IQ and his world view – not his view of the greater international scene, but the view formed by the social circles in which he lives. It is an approach to life suited to investment banking, but not politics. He may have been born into a political family, but he didn't get the gene.

There were lots of other problems with the Romney candidacy, and many positives too, but none were as central as the fact that he isn't very good at the job.So the predictable Republican ideological struggle is, to my mind, beside the point. In 2016, they don’t need a candidate with a different philosophy; they need a candidate who’s a better candidate.

If President Obama loses, it’s clear that it will be because of a lackluster economy. The very smart people running the Romney campaign have concluded the same thing, which is why their strategy is based on convincing the public the President has failed on that score. They’re not spending much time or money making the case he has made America less safe -- or that he’s a career politician or untrustworthy or even too liberal. They believe they can only win if they make Americans feel bad enough about the slow recovery, and hang it on the President.

There are many other factors involved in the voters’ assessment of the two candidates. Romney’s Wall Street background and changing positions were weighed against his business success and his personal virtue. (Not to mention his strange decision to go farthest right on immigration, an issue so important to many Hispanic voters.) The Obama campaign made a few mistakes, too. But none of that was determinative. A better candidate than Romney could have taken advantage of the hangover from the Great Recession, and in a faster recovery no one could have beaten the well-liked sitting president.

So if Romney loses, a word of advice to my Republican friends: It’s the candidate, not the ideology. Next time pick someone who is good at the job -- which is running for president.

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