Thoughts on the present discontents

I’m back from the Horowitz Freedom Center’s West Coast Retreat. I spent the weekend listening to outstanding keynote speeches and panel presentations, so I’ve been out of touch with the news. I hope to put some notes on the conference up later today. In the meantime, here is what I prepared to say (with links!) on the panel addressing where we go from here which I participated in along with Ralph Reed and David Horowitz, with Josh Brewster moderating.

Thanks to Peter Collier and David Horowitz, my long-time heroes, for inviting me this weekend and for the honor of appearing on this panel alongside David and Ralph Reed.

Thinking about where we go from here brought to mind the words of our greatest president in his most incendiary speech: “If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.”

I think we all pretty much know where we are and what we’re tending to. It’s why we’re here this weekend. I’ll paraphrase Lincoln and say we’re now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of fundamentally transforming the United States.

Looking back at the election, it’s worth asking how we got here – because just about everything we thought we knew about politics and presidential elections proved to be false. Or at least just about everything I thought I knew.

First, that a reelection campaign is a referendum on the incumbent president – that was the fundamental thesis of the Romney campaign. Wrong! I bought it. The Romney campaign staked itself on the proposition that it needed to present Governor Romney as a plausible alternative to a failed incumbent. As a result they shied away from a comprehensive critique of the Obama presidency and from ideas generally.

Second, that a bad economy dooms an incumbent president. Wrong! The Romney campaign seemed to think that the bad economy and high unemployment by themselves made the case for Romney. People like Bill Kristol persistently questioned the wisdom of the Romney campaign’s call on this score and Bill was right.

Third, that Americans reject government dependency and laugh off the promise of government support from cradle to grave. Just look at the Obama campaign’s promise of life everlasting in its famous interactive feature The Life of Julia. They told the American public to “See how President Obama’s policies help one woman over her lifetime” and how Mitt Romney would change her story. It was It’s A Wonderful Life redone for the welfare state. It’s a theme that didn’t hurt Romney with young voters, a group he won with 60 percent of the vote.

So, what happened? How did the Obama campaign overcome the odds, and how can Republicans learn from its success? I want briefly to mention four factors.

TECHNOLOGICAL SUPERIORITY

In the realm of technology, the Obama machine crushed the Romney machine. Following the election, the Obama campaign actually put its playbook online – here it is — detailing the workings of the operation called The Cave. If you’re familiar with Plato, you might be excused for thinking The Cave would have been the more fitting name for the Romney campaign’s playbook.

The conservative blogger Bryan Preston said that “The Cave was to US politics what the Hubble Space Telescope would have been to Neanderthals… It hired analysts from Silicon Valley rather than the Beltway.” As a result, the Obama campaign built an efficient and data-driven operation that correctly predicted the behavior of millions of Americans. At the same time, it maintained the flexibility to make real-time adjustment and produced votes. Romney’s Project Orca crashed on Election Day.

Technology also helped the campaign’s record fundraising efforts. BusinessWeek’s Joshua Green has reported that most of the $690 million Obama raised online came from fundraising e-mails. During the campaign, Obama’s staff wouldn’t answer questions about them or the alchemy that made them so successful.

If there is such a thing as political science, I think the Obama campaign discovered it in its email fundraising. By a rigorous process of trial and error, they determined the most effective email subject line with which to raise money and the correct amount to ask for in order to maximize their return.

The most effective email subject line of the campaign was one word: Hey. Only rigorous science could have dredged up an insight like that.

Incidentally, we regularly published and mocked the Obama campaign emails at Power Line. Let’s just say we weren’t their target audience.

GENIUS OF THE DEMOCRATS

After the last election you really have to hand it to the Democrats. They have a genius for being able to blacken the names and reputations of men of the most sterling character—Mitt Romney is just one, and he was a dead man walking before he got the nomination.

Before he had even formally been nominated, the Obama campaign was running a devastating advertising campaign attacking hisbusiness record and personal character in key battleground states. I thought the attacks were ludicrous, but they did the trick.

Putting the reasons to one side, Romney never responded. He never got off the mat. For all practical purposes, the campaign seemed to operate on the thesis that it was too soon to engage, that undecided voters make up their minds at the end of a presidential campaign. Wrong again!

It should be noted that the Obama campaign was using a slight variation of the playbook Dick Morris ran against Bob Dole on in the 1996 race against Bill Clinton. Morris spelled it out in his memoir Behind the Oval Office: Getting Reelected Against All Odds.

Incidentally, David Horowitz has been thinking long and hard about this problem. See his essay published on Power Line earlier this month: Go for the Heart: How Republicans Can Win.

DEMOGRAPHY

Something’s happening with the issue of demography. The electorate in our presidential elections is shifting in a direction adverse to Republicans. The Republican consultant Jeffrey Bell has noted that, in the six presidential elections between 1992 and 2012, the Democratic Party has regained the solid popular vote majority it enjoyed during the New Deal/Great Society era from 1932 to 1964—which it lost in the six elections between 1968 and 1988.

We’re in California; I don’t need to belabor the point.

Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner make the point this way in this month’s Commentary: if the country’s demographic composition were the same last year as it was in 2000, Romney would now be president. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, Romney would have won in a rout. If he had merely secured 42 percent of the Hispanic vote—rather than his pathetic 27 percent—Romney would have won the popular vote and carried Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico. They conclude that Republicans have a winning message for an electorate that no longer exists.

DEPENDENCY

Something is happening in terms of how Americans view dependence on government, too. Beyond Social Security and Medicare, we have the continued growth of Medicaid, food stamps, Social Security disability, welfare, and, just over the horizon, Obamacare. The political economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has observed has observed a growing dependence on government support despite declining unemployment rates. Although we’re entering the fourth year of recovery from the recession, the number of Americans seeking entitlement benefits from the government continues to increase.

We appear to be undergoing a “fundamental transformation” that goes deep into our character. As we can see in The Life of Julia, President Obama promotes it as a positive good.

Which brings me back to Lincoln. He asked rhetorically in one of his 1858 campaign speeches, in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form. What are these arguments? he asked:

“They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument…is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.”

It’s as true in 2013 as it was in 1858.

FOOTNOTE: I want to add that John Hinderaker touched on the issues related to the Romney campaign’s treatment of the personal attacks on him in his comments on this posts.

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