Politics 2016: Why Romney’s Strategist Is Wrong About Everyone Else Being Wrong

November 30, 2012

There is a school of thought that the Republican Party should not over-react to the 2012 presidential election. That the circumstances were unusual enough to explain the 51-47% loss, and that under more normal conditions, those few million votes could be flipped without any great shift in message. It’s an argument most recently outlined by Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, who wrote that Obama “was a charismatic African American president with a billion dollars, no primary…How easy is that to replicate?” His point was that since Obama was black, he drove higher than normal black and other non-white turnout, flipping states like Virginia, Ohio, and Florida that might well have gone Republican if the Democratic candidate had been white.

Steven has endured a good amount of ridicule for the <em>Washington Post</em> op-ed in which he looked back at the campaign, partly because he didn’t seem to identify any fault in his strategy or his candidate’s performance.  But I appreciate that he stood up for his candidate.  I have a lot of problems with Romney, but I can admire someone who stays loyal in defeat much more than those former allies whose first instinct is to show how smart they were all along. And Steven’s point is not altogether without merit, in that the first non-white President, with a historic list of progressive accomplishments, certainly inspired minority voters and young people more than your average presidential candidate of the past. But the Stevens’ argument is mostly wrong, for two major reasons.

First, this critique only looks at the positives of Obama’s situation in 2012. It ignores what nearly everyone agreed was the most important factor in this election: the economy. The worldwide economic slowdown, and Europe’s continuing debt crisis, dragged down America’s recovery, leaving unemployment at or near 8 percent for all of the President’s whole first term. As Republican insiders repeatedly stressed for months before the election, no president gets re-elected with employment numbers like that. How easy will it be for the next Republican nominee to “replicate” having the chance to blame 8% unemployment on his Democratic opponent? 

But the Stevens’ critique also makes the assumption that future Democratic nominees will be white. White candidates like New York governor Andrew Cuomo may not be able to inspire the same level of minority turnout as Obama, but what about Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick or a rising star of Hispanic origin? Or imagine how large the gender gap would grow if Democrats nominated a centrist woman like Senator Amy Klobuchar or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano? Or what if they chose a charismatic candidate of any race or gender that inspires people who feel disconnected from politics and haven’t voted in the past. The point is that Steven’s argument relies on the calculus of the past, the pre-Obama era in which the model of a national candidate was very narrow.

It is certainly true that there are more white men getting mentioned for 2016 than women or minorities. But it is also true that The Mentioners in the press and elsewhere tend to lag behind emerging trends. It is hard to believe that after the Democrats’ most recent contested presidential primary was between a black man and a woman, the progressive party would return to all white-male contests or nominees. There is a very good chance that Kerry-Edwards was the last time in history the Party of Jackson nominates two white men.

<em>Check here for regular observations on politics and history, as well as new clips from The Bigger Hammer.  Follow @TheBiggerHammer on Twitter to find out when new excerpts are released and where you’ll be able to see the whole film.</em>

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