How, exactly did we get to this place? How did one of our two major parties nominate someone who is so obviously unqualified, unprepared and ill-equipped to be president? How did a giant orange blowhard convince this many people that he’s not actually bad at what he does, that it doesn’t matter that he is a racist and a sexist and likely a sociopath, that he disdains military service, has no respect for prisoners of war and refuses to apologize for mocking the handicapped?
There has been an enormous amount of literal and digital ink spilled over this, and I’m not going to rehash the myriad economic, social and racist theories that have taken root. I’m not even going to disagree, because most of them are basically accurate. I am, however, going to talk a little bit about the impact of revisionist history on this race.
There is a common theme that has bounced around conservative talk radio for so long that many listeners wholeheartedly believe it: that Republicans lose elections because they nominate moderate candidates. They are simply “not conservative enough” or “too politically correct.” It’s a great sound bite that appeals to the base of the party, enables the far right and also happens to convey a wildly inaccurate history of recent elections. Add in the tendency of those same voices to conflate “conservatism” with bigotry, racism and economic illiteracy, and you get the recipe for a complete clown like Trump.
I’ll start with the patron saint of modern conservatism, Ronald Reagan. I consider Reagan to be a wonderful leader, a great messenger and a steadfast proponent of freedom in the face of global tyranny. He was not, however, remotely the model president of modern conservatism that the current generation of GOP pundits, advisers, politicians and candidates pretends. He raised taxes at least 11 times as president, exploded the size and scope of the Federal Government, expanded Social Security, created a now-$90 billion department, granted amnesty to three million illegal immigrants, and eagerly advanced the decades-long march towards the consolidation of Executive power. Upset with President Obama’s disdain for Congress and use of Executive authority? Well, he didn’t invent that idea…(neither did Reagan, but he made aggressive use of it).
Reagan didn’t win elections because he was conservative; he won elections because he delivered a consistent and compelling message. The same is true of the last two national GOP election victories, running behind rock-solid conservative George W. Bush. OK, “rock solid” is strong…he did sign the largest new Federal program since the Great Society. And he may have written a sweeping Federal takeover of education. And I guess you could say that he did more to roll back civil liberties than any president in recent memory. Also, he never met a spending bill – or a deficit – that he didn’t love (not an exaggeration).
He did talk about God a lot, though, so he must have been a solid conservative, right?
Like Reagan, Bush didn’t win solely because he was a conservative. He won because he successfully leveraged some significant strengths in running for the presidency. He was charming and personable, which made him a great fundraiser and a likable candidate. He also had a phenomenally good record of choosing really terrible opponents.
The Bush presidency didn’t end so well, though, and by 2008, the landscape was considerably less favorable for the GOP than in either of the previous elections. Or, really, any election other than 1976. John McCain stepped onto the stage to face a dynamic and extraordinarily well-funded opponent and, not surprisingly, got thumped pretty badly. Very quickly, it became popular in conservative circles to claim that this loss was due not to the imploding economy or disastrous war in Iraq, but rather McCain’s liberalness.
Four years later, we got something of a repeat performance. The race certainly wasn’t as hopeless for the GOP as it had been in 2008 – the economy remained unsatisfying for many, and Obama’s approval numbers were basically at breakeven leading up to the election. It was still, however, a challenge to a well-funded sitting president with some major first-term initiatives to claim as positive achievements (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, Osama Bin Laden’s death, withdrawal from Iraq). Romney lost for several reasons, including a desire to not seem like someone he clearly is, a disorganized campaign, several bad gaffes, and an inability to both explain why those Obama initiatives were poor policy and sell voters on things that eventually turned out to be right.
But to the talk radio echo chamber, he lost because “he was a liberal!” Rush Limbaugh is among many who think that Mitt Romney lost because only conservatives win elections. (In fairness to Rush, his recollection of at least the two elections that George W. Bush won may not be entirely sharp.) The Donald has echoed this, along with the bizarre assertion that Romney went on vacation for a week before the election. Utterly insufferable Trumpeteer Jeffrey Lord is one of many who have peddled the myth that as many as four million GOP voters stayed home.
They are all missing the most important part of the equation: Barack Obama. That same echo chamber so despises the president that it has never acknowledged the truth of his two victories. Obama may be a poor president, but he was a great candidate. The right fell into the easy-to-miss trap of simply assuming that all influenceable voters see the same things in Obama that they do, and can’t understand how anyone could lose to him. This overlooks the fact that he is an unparalleled fundraiser, an admirable orator (overrated, but still very good) and maintained a message and campaigning discipline that campaign managers can only dream of in a candidate for this office. His defeat of the virtually-coronated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary will stand as one of political history’s greatest campaigns.
The mathematical truth is that both McCain and Romney won handily among the people who consider conservatism important in a presidential candidate. There were no massive swaths of voters who stayed home because they just didn’t have another Eisenhower to vote for. They lost because they ran campaigns that were less disciplined, less well-funded and less inspiring against a guy who was simply a better candidate. The small number of voters who actually decide presidential elections don’t care about someone’s ideology nearly as much as they care about the general feeling they get about the personality, competence and likability of the candidate.
There is a lot more to it than this, obviously. There is a real and reasonable frustration with the GOP apparatus from the right-of-center, under-skilled worker who has seen his or her economic security diminish. Despite not really being all that conservative, Trump has played into the mythology of “the conservative candidate wins” and combined it with an accusation that party insiders have foisted moderates on the “true conservatives” of the party (in some senses, Ted Cruz did, too, and I am going to write about that next). If Romney and McCain lost because they pandered too much to the middle, then surely the answer is a guy who refuses to pander to anyone! (Well, no one other than white nationalists, racists, isolationists and economic imbeciles.) We keep running the candidates the “smart set” thinks are best and we keep losing, so maybe we should do the opposite!
But it won’t work. The thinking is wrong, historically illiterate and flies in the face of common sense and reason. It is a losing strategy, and it’s helped lead to the single worst presidential candidate of my lifetime.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.