Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The election ... my take

I know I'm a little out of my realm here, but I'd like to take a crack at what I feel this election has told us.

And I also know that postmortem thumb-sucking after such a volatile election is probably the last thing anyone wants to read. But there's just so much going on with me about this that I have to release it somewhere.

I understand I'm a sports editor. Nobody's got their ear to the ground, waiting for this report to come out. I can barely get people to listen to me when I talk about things I might actually know something about. So why should anyone listen to me about this?

Here's why. Because elections don't happen as the result of bloviating "experts." They happen because people like me spend over a year listening to commercials, reading stories, reading literature, watching debates and speeches, and we form our own conclusion ... not just on what the candidates say, but how they say it, and, perhaps, why they say it.

And we vote mainly our our own likes and dislikes when measured with, and against, what the candidates say.

And regardless of what anyone else says, our voice is the only one that matters. We decide. And this year, we decided we were fed up with negativity, fed up with meanness, fed up with the threat of undoing social progress, and fed up with an opportunistic candidate who changed positions on important issues about as often as you and I change our socks.

The Republicans wanted to make this election 100 percent about the economy. They put up a candidate with a lifetime of business experience and tried to sell us on the idea that regardless of anything else they espoused, no matter how vitriolic it seemed to be, Mitt Romney's knowledge about how to run a business trumped all.

Problem is, it didn't. And it shouldn't have.

Two weeks ago, we had a super storm that devastated the east coast at a time when -- otherwise -- the bloviation machine would have been spewing smoke thanks to the speed at which it was churning. It was latest so-called storm of the century -- a century that is only 12 years old.

Hurricane Sandy did more than slow the campaign down. It shifted the focus onto climate change ... an issue that had been missing from this campaign. But more than that, it underscored the reality that within the parameters of the debate, it was largely Republicans who scoffed at the notion of climate change and its effects on weather.

If Sandy was the second coming of the "perfect storm," that ripped up the East Coast in 1991, then the Republican campaign of 2012 was a "perfect storm" of miscalculations, missteps and missed opportunity on the part of the Republicans.

I am an Obama supporter and make no apologies. But outside of Jimmy Carter, there has been no incumbent in my lifetime who was more vulnerable to being defeated than Barack Obama. With the right approach, this could have been the type of historic cakewalk that catapulted Ronald Reagan to sainthood in the eyes of HIS supporters.

 But the Republicans didn't think it through. They didn't listen to themselves speak. And to many people -- especially those who live in fear that they're going to be called into the office and told they're an economic liability to the company -- they sounded exactly like corporate hatchet men (and men is the operative word in an election season where women ever-more-strongly asserted themselves). Even if they may have been right about some of the sacrifices that needed to be made, the gave off a bad vibe to too many voting blocs. And in the end, and for a change, those voting blocs united and found a compelling reason to keep Barack Obama in office.

Mitt Romney seems to be a pretty good guy. I'm sure, in his private moments, when he's not trying to impress a particular group, he's can sound warm and compassionate, and can connect with people as well as anyone else.

The problem with Romney was that no matter what he said, you had to do an algebra problem to determine what was behind it. Who was he playing to? Who was supposed to hear it? It just never appeared that he said anything ... not even "how's the weather?" ... that didn't have a hidden purpose or ulterior motive. He made Eddie Haskell look sincere.

Obviously, politics is a business rife with duplicitous creatures who would use their right hands to sell their left hands to the devil if they thought it would get them anywhere. But in that world, Romney stood out.

That's the first lesson the Republicans -- if they're seriously interested in learning any lessons -- should take from this. George W. Bush connected with the American people because, right or wrong, he had the courage of his convictions. He pretty much got up there and said, "this is me. Vote for me if you like me ... vote for the other guy if you don't." With Bush, to quote Bob Dylan, you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew.

With Romney you needed an army of them.

Today, I see the Republican party -- at least on a national level -- about where it was in 1964 after an ideologically pure, but very conservative, Barry Goldwater lost spectacularly to Lyndon Johnson (ironically, when Goldwater uttered that famous remark about extremism in the pursuit of liberty not being a vice, he was responding to accusations by Mitt's dad, George Romney, that he was too much of a right-winger and that Republicans should repudiate what he stood for).

What did the Republicans do? They got a whole lot more pragmatic about their ideological purity four years later and won the White House with Richard Nixon (of ALL people!).

Wednesday, I could sense there were a whole lot of Republicans walking around, scratching their heads, and wondering how it all went so wrong. A lot of Republicans I know -- even here in Massachusetts, where the GOP has been the skunk at the lawn party for decades -- were so confident about this.

Perhaps that first debate gave them sufficient reason for feeling that way. It was a poor performance by Obama. He clearly underestimated Romney's chutzpah ... his willingness to show many faces, depending on where he was and to whom he was speaking. Romney took him by surprise, and he had Obama back on his heels.

First impressions last, right? Isn't that what they say? It's obviously what the Republicans believed. If you checked into the social media sites the next day, you'd have thought the election was over. And from that point on, Romney and GOP supporters became more and more emboldened ... and more and more certain they'd win.

That first debate also signaled a change in Romney's strategy. Apparently he figured he'd done enough to solidify the far right vote, and began working on the great unwashed mass of undecideds (something I always thought was rather a myth ... I don't think there were undecideds as much as there may have been luke-warm Dems/Republicans who just couldn't warm up to either candidate, and who may have been perfectly happy to sit this one out if not energized to vote).

He moderated. He tried to move away from the stands he'd taken for over a year in attempt to woo the middle ... and the people who only started paying attention a month before the election (I don't know who that could have been ... but obviously they thought there were such people out there).

That obviously didn't have the desired effect. Romney's people banked on an electorate that would remember the last thing it heard. It got an electorate whose memory was a lot longer, and that remembered all the other stances too. And if there were moderates out there who took umbrage at the unmitigated gall of Romney's pandering, you can also bet there were hard-core conservatives who had always been doubtful of Mitt's "credentials," and who perhaps felt betrayed by his shifting policy positions. And who, perhaps, stayed home on Nov. 6.

There were some other circumstances that, in the end, worked against Romney rather than for him ... as he (and the GOP) might have thought.

I'm sure the Republicans considered the Supreme Court's vacation of the clause in the McCain-Feingold act of 2002 that prohibited corporations and unions from financing independent political ads a victory. And as much as the Democrats may have squawked about that decision (and squawk they did) both parties took advantage of their new freedom to accept ads financed by corporations and PACs.

I refer, of course, to Citizens United and its lawsuit that resulted in overturning the McCain-Feingold provision.

This may have been a bonanza for the Republicans for the reason that most corporations tend to favor the policies that the party supports. You don't see very many liberal CEOs.

But buckets full of money generally mean more negative, more vitriolic ads and that's what we got. In spades. It was an exceptionally long, nasty and expensive campaign. And I don't know ... maybe enough people got exasperated by all the vitriol that they reacted by blaming the party they felt was more responsible. And since it was largely Republicans who seemed to support Citizens United, the onus -- especially in the swing states where the electorate isn't all knee-jerk GOP or Democrat -- fell on them.

It's just a theory. But in all of this, I'm beginning to see that the prevailing word that would perhaps describe this election is "backlash." I see this election as a jigsaw puzzle, because that's often what elections are. Certain pieces of it end up being the keys to the whole puzzle. If you find a home for one piece, it's amazing how many other pieces of the puzzle come together.

It's almost like "connect the dots." For example, the GOP's Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, very publicly vowed to make Obama a "one-term president." From a minority position, he and the Republicans abused the filibuster system so badly that if the president nominated someone for Dog Catcher in Jerkwater County, Florida, it never got to the floor.

When Scott Brown ran against Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy's seat (after the senator died), there was a great deal of Republican action flooding into Massachusetts. Why? Not because Scott Brown was uniquely qualified to be a U.S. Senator, but because Brown would have given the Republicans better leverage with which to use the filibuster. Conversely, Obama -- at a moment where the Republicans and the Tea Party had been relentlessly beating the drums of discontent over Obamacare -- had to come in and try to bail Coakley out. The results were disastrous for the Democrats.

But the Republicans apparently forgot that the vanquished often live to see another day. Nixon rose from the dead. And when they loudly ran Elizabeth Warren out of a relatively minor position in the Obama cabinet, that gave her the impetus to run for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts and defeat Brown.

In other words, and once again, the Republicans were done in by their own hubris and bravado. 

Now, if you measure McConnell's state objective -- which was to make sure Obama was defeated in 2012 -- and measure it against all the foot-dragging on the part of the Republicans over the last four years, what do you get? You get a trend. You get an electorate that may be slow on the uptake sometimes, but that is smart enough to understand the difference between an honest and loyal opposition and a group of obstructionists who don't necessarily have its best interests in their hearts.

They remember these things ... and when it comes time to respond, they do.

There was backlash over the Tea Party. In Michigan, Northern Ohio (which carried Obama to victory in that state) and other industrial regions that proved the difference between blue and red, auto workers who undoubtedly remembered Romney's exhortation to "let Detroit go bankrupt" spoke at the ballot box.

Latino voters who heard Romney stake out a position on immigration that seemed to embody the worst kind of Xenophobia spoke at the ballot box. It's been said that the Latino voters represent the fastest-growing constituency. Obama carried it with almost 70 percent of the vote.

Abortion ... veiled threats to do away with Roe v. Wade (from which Romney later backed off) ... threats to repeal the president's health plan ... Senators Aiken's remark about "legitimate rape" and candidate Mourdock's view that if a woman conceives out of rape, it's God's will ... threats to cut off funding of PBS (and stupidly invoking "Big Bird" into the discussion) ... a binder full of women ... these all resonated with different groups of people the Republican didn't think they needed to win the White House.

But they were wrong. The Republicans DID need them. 

It's not a given that Romney was necessarily on the wrong side of some of these issues. It's more the dismissive way he stated his case that perhaps turned people off. That crack about the "47 percent" killed him. It gave Obama a wide-open palette to paint the less attractive side of being a venture capitalist against the backdrop of the remark. And until the president pulled his no-show in debate No. 1, that was working marvelously.

Time and time again, Romney gave the president the mallet with which Obama gladly clobbered him. And, really, isn't that a cardinal truism in politics? That there are times when you're going to get hit over the head, but that doesn't mean you have to provide people with the mallet to do it? There were times in this campaign that Romney was practically passing the mallets out.

We see the jigsaw puzzle start to come together. The insensitivity (or seeming insensitivity, perhaps) to some of the needs of that 47 percent hurt him with every demographic except white males (whose numbers in support of him were higher than even Reagan's). Twenty years ago, Romney might have won this election going away.

But it's not 20 years ago. It's now. African-Americans, women, Latinos, young people who don't necessarily have strong ties to organized religion (and who are graduating from college in droves with poor job prospects), didn't necessarily appreciate being seen as moochers by someone who was successfully branded as a bloodless plutocrat who threw people out of work for the sole purpose of turning a profit in a business he'd just taken over.

They feared that the social safety net that at least promised to catch them if they fell would, instead, be pulled out from under them. Honest, hard-working people need social safety nets too. And those hard-working people spoke with their ballots.

They feared that the stampede of socially conservative and unduly judgmental right-wingers would crush any legitimate social progress we've made.

They heard one too many coded racist remarks ... saw one too many belligerent ads ... heard one too many hysterical exhortation that Obama "hates this country" ... had their intelligence insulted too often by the notion floated by Republicans that we should be somehow farther along in recovering from an economic recession (one that the president inherited from a Republican predecessor who fought two wars via credit card) more serious than anything since the Great Depression. And that the fact we aren't was Obama's fault.

They saw a party, and a candidate, that seemed to encourage the people in this country who could afford to help the most when it came to contributing toward bringing us back from the financial cliff to, instead, pull back and refuse to put forth any more monetary effort to rescue a system that had served them so well ... and for so long. And they spoke.

I mean, seriously, all anyone one was asking was, "hey, help out a little!" The spectacular refusal to do so was, in a word, astounding. And, as we've now seen, the backlash was severe.

They all got up and spoke on election day ... all the growing demographic constituencies who are, just now, picking up enough steam to influence the national agenda.  And obviously, their take was different. They saw a president who spent much of his four years in office trying to tame a beast that wasn't very easy to tame. And to them, he succeeded. The wolf may not be vanquished, but he's not howling at the door as loudly as he was in 2008.

The reality of politics is this: Every president, governor, mayor, congressman, senator, selectman ... all of them ... have something in common with the Wizard of Oz. If you pull back the curtain, you see a fallible human being who is far from capable of pulling off half of what they promise ... and, for that matter, half of what their opponents accuse them of doing. There's just no way. I think one of the ways incumbents have the advantage when it's time for re-election is that they ARE sadder and wiser. I didn't sense the unbridled joy of 2008 with Obama. He didn't radiate hope and change. But what he did radiate was the wisdom of having learned, through four bitter years, what kind of a game this really is at this level ... what he could do and, more importantly, what he couldn't do.

I hate to say it, but running for governor of Massachusetts, and winning, is like hitting .350 in Double-A ball. The varsity is a whole new experience, and nobody -- regardless of what they may claim -- is truly ready for it.

Obama's advantage, for better or worse, is that he was. He may have gone drawn the collar and whiffed four times in the first debate, but he was wise enough to know he'd have another day. He didn't panic. If the same thing had happened to Romney, he may have been toast, because he didn't have any reservoir of experience from which to draw.

Obama may have had a hard time handling the slings and arrows of a sluggish economy. But he handled the slings and arrows of a rough campaign better than Romney did.

The saddest thing -- at least from a Republican viewpoint -- is that this was a very winnable election ... and for all the reasons they repeatedly pounded home. The economy IS sluggish. Unemployment IS stubbornly high. Obama wasted so much political capitol getting his health care plan passed that he didn't have any left to lead on other thorny issues. There were many times when it appeared that he was being led, as opposed to being the one leading.

He was/is far from perfect. He has his own problems with being (or seeming) remote and out of touch. And he has his own problems trying to connect with people who aren't on board with much of what he stands for.

In another election, and with a political organization a bit quicker on the uptake on the country's ever-shifting demographics, Romney may have won.

But the GOP played to its base. And unlike in past years (even as recently as Bush II), that base is shrinking.

 Conversely, Obama's campaign understood those shifting demographics. Not only that, the Obama campaign won this election with arithmetic. It carved out the proverbial "path to 270" by understanding just what it needed to do. And it understood that for the first time in quite a while, the melting-pot diversity that defines the Democrat party had finally reached the point where it counteracted the traditional GOP base.

What does this all mean? It means a divided government for the foreseeable future. The nationwide demographic that thrust Obama into power doesn't exist state-by-state, and since much of the middle of the country is Republican, we won't be seeing a one-party legislature anytime soon. We may see more of this: the Democrats winning on the national level (at least until the Republicans can catch up with the shifting constituencies) and the GOP winning house and senate seats.

This election was not strictly about the economy. It was about a collection of divergent voting blocs that rose up and created a profound backlash against a party that not only didn't seem to care about them, but seemed seemed absolutely oblivious to their existence.

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