Since the election you have probably read and heard many explanations of why Barack Obama won and Mitt Romney lost. Some say the Republicans have moved too far right on social issues — while ignoring that the Democrats have moved too far left and are much more uncompromising in their positions. Others say Romney was too beholden to the mushy middle to motivate his base. It is true that conservatives Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost their respective Senate races. It is worth pointing out that some staunchly pro-abortion Republicans also lost. Reps. Judy Biggert, Robert Dold (both IL) and Mary Bono Mack (CA), as well as Sen. Scott Brown (MA) were among them, and, unlike Akin or Mourdock, they were all incumbents. The explanation must go far beyond the candidates’ views on abortion or even immigration.
I believe I have found the explanation in what one might consider an unusual place: a dusty corporate English textbook lesson about headhunters (alright, executive search consultants). I use these textbooks to teach English to businesspeople in Lima, and they have many useful lessons about such topics as economics, trade, management and corporate social responsibility. The audio materials are usually news interviews with prominent business executives, such as the London headhunter who said his recruitment efforts are only likely to be successful if his prospects feel both a “push” and a “pull.”
The “push” is something about a prospect’s current position or company that isn’t quite satisfactory, while the “pull” is something about a job offer, often from a competitor, that is attractive to the prospect. If there is a push but no pull, the prospect will usually prefer the security of his existing company to the risks of starting at a new one. If there is a pull but no push, that means the prospect is happy in his current position and it will take an outstanding offer to draw him. I believe the same is true of voters in an election: they need both a push and a pull to change the party in power.
There can be no question that Obama provided the push, and he did so in several areas, most notably the economy, spending and debt, foreign policy and social issues. His push was far stronger than that of the elder George Bush in 1992 and comparable to that of Jimmy Carter in 1980. Starting with the economy, there has to be a enormous push when Jimmy Carter’s term created three times as many jobs (1977-1980, inclusive) as Obama’s first term not counting 2009, and also not considering the nearly 50% growth in the work force since 1980. GDP growth was also far stronger on Carter’s watch. What doomed Carter was that the recession happened in the last year of his term. Had his re-election bid been in November 1979, his victory would have been a foregone conclusion.
Obama is close to contributing more to the national debt than all 42 of his predecessors combined, and that is also a huge push. The entire national debt in 1982 was less than the annual budget deficit for each year of Obama’s first term regardless of which year you pick. As for foreign policy, the recent turmoil in Syria, Libya and Egypt speaks for itself. Iran, a country that also gave huge headaches to Carter, is well on the way to building nuclear bombs (which liberals usually say they’re against) and has just attacked a U.S. missile drone. And the war in Afghanistan is far from over. It is true Osama bin Laden will killed on Obama’s watch. It is also true that the Camp David Accords were a huge success for Carter. One major success does not compensate for a persistent pattern of incompetence and failure.
On social issues Obama started off trying to appease both sides and avoid reigniting the culture wars. But once Obamacare passed, he started to take a more radical tack which culminated in this year’s efforts to make both state and federal funding of Planned Parenthood mandatory and forcing many religious institutions opposed to birth control to subsidize it. His “evolution” on same-sex unions followed a similar pattern. It may be that Obama was a social radical all along, or it may be that he became increasingly influenced by activists with whom he had frequent contact, such as the executive director of Planned Parenthood and several outspoken celebrities like Eva Longoria and Scarlett Johansson. One doesn’t have to be a conservative to feel a push here; it should be just as offensive to pro-lifers who are otherwise progressive, and certainly to libertarians.
The problem for Romney and the Republicans is they took the push for granted and forgot the pull. On the economy, Romney probably convinced people he could create jobs, but he didn’t convince them his policies would benefit the middle class as much as the rich. On spending and debt, voters probably weren’t convinced he could find a way past the gridlock in Congress, nor were they convinced he would really make meaningful cuts in spending. After all, Reagan promised the same and that was the one promise he couldn’t keep. Voters probably weren’t even convinced he could get an across-the-board tax cut through Congress, especially with a hostile Senate. Romney gave a good talk, but voters weren’t convinced he could carry it out. All push, no pull.
On foreign policy, Romney’s lack of experience, and Paul Ryan’s for that matter, was just as profound as Obama’s. Vice President Biden has more foreign policy experience than the other three put together and multiplied by three. And as we can see in the Middle East, this is no time for foreign policy inexperience in the White House. Certainly no pull there.
Finally, how can a former Massachusetts governor who campaigned on a pro-choice, pro-gay platform, instituted the prototype of Obamacare in his own state and has even outwaffled such serial flipfloppers as Bill Clinton or his own senator John Kerry, ever hope to be the standardbearer for social conservatives in a national election? Parital-birth abortion didn’t convince him to change his mind but embryonic stem-cell research did? Not very convincing, especially considering that most Mormons don’t believe an embryo receives its soul until implantation (the LDS church does not take an official position on this, however.) A “conversion” of political convenience if there ever was one! Again, no pull.
Conclusion: the key to 2016 is not for the GOP to move left on immigration and social issues, as they will lose more votes from the right than they gain from the center and left. The key is to offer voters enough pull that they will accept the risks of a change in leadership. Nearly everyone knows Obama’s first term was an absolute failure, but the GOP needed to offer something better. This takes more than stating more sensible positions or offering better theories of economic management. The Republican candidate has to convince voters he or she can offer better leadership. To some extent the younger Bush succeeded at this; but the last GOP Presidential candidate to truly add a good pull to an existing push was none other than Ronald Reagan.