Post-Election 2012 Thoughts: Part 2

Ross Douthat, opinion writer for The New York Times (written before the election): “Yes, he ran a terribly unimaginative campaign on policy, by turns vague and contradictory, offering boilerplate one moment and fuzzy math the next. But he was a non-ideological manager trying to lead a party torn by ideological civil war — a party that by rights should still be in the wilderness, working through what went wrong in the Bush era, and that lucked into its 2010 and 2012 opportunities rather than deserving them. A great politician might have been able to done better under these circumstances, finessing the party’s divisions, reimagining its message, and pulling a realigning election out of the air. But many politicians could have done worse — losing either the base or their path to the center, and gaining a landslide loss for their efforts. Given Romney’s temperament, his skill set, his background, maybe this was the best he could have done with the materials he was given. . . . . Every losing presidential candidate probably believes that with a few breaks they could have won, but if Romney loses that will be truer for him than it was for Mondale or Dukakis or Dole or even John Kerry. Precisely because he has come so very close — leading in the national polls for two weeks, just a point or two off in the swing states he needs to win at various moments, lacking only some final hinge moment or stroke of luck — if he ultimately loses it’s hard to imagine him being remembered as dismissively as most failed contenders tend to be remembered. He won’t be eulogized as a beautiful loser like McGovern or Goldwater, remembered fondly by pundits and idea people on both sides of the aisle, but he also won’t become a punchline or a tragic figure or a ‘let’s forget that ever happened’ kind of candidate. He’ll be in a class by himself — remembered, I suspect, the way everything in his background suggests he’d want to be remembered: As the man who outworked all his rivals, the losing nominee who left it all on the field, and the Republican who gave the once-untouchable Barack Obama the race of his political life.”

Editors of The American Conservative: “After every election half the country sighs with relief while the other gnashes its teeth. What remain constant as Republicans and Democrats rotate through office are the intractable difficulties the nation now faces. From budget surpluses and confidence in perpetual prosperity at the end of the 20th century, America has arrived at trillion-dollar deficits and an economy razed by the Great Recession. The ‘indispensable nation’ that emerged the indisputable victor in the Cold War 20 years ago is today a superpower still, but one mired in the longest war of its history—in Afghanistan, no less, graveyard of the Evil Empire—a superpower strategically adrift in a disordered new world of drone killings, terror, and rising regional powers. What America needs most amid all this is conservatism: not the ideology of any party, but a disposition to conserve, and wisely invest, our national capital. The capital in question is not merely financial; Lord Salisbury, in an earlier era of humanitarian intervention and empire, warned against squandering ‘military capital’ on unnecessary and unwinnable conflicts. More important yet is our civilizational capital—our habits and laws as a people, the written and unwritten Constitution. How has it fared? Our civil liberties and the civic fabric of American life have lately been torn to rags by both parties. Confronted by systemic crisis, the parties prescribe a quick fix—quack remedies from invading Iraq to subsidizing Solyndra—while a people hard pressed by diminished opportunity and dwindling incomes stands ready to accept whatever is offered. This is a mistake: careful analysis and consideration, a competent diagnosis, must precede any cure. . . . The watchword is realism—in foreign policy, in economic reasoning, and in life. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it,” urged Karl Marx. But change—’regime change’ as practiced by President Bush, for example, or the ‘change’ Barack Obama promised in 2008—is never salutary reform unless one first understands the realities of the situation. For America today, that means taking a hard look at our strategy and diplomacy toward others, at our monetary system as well as our taxes and spending, at our social order and popular culture, and at religion and philosophy, examining all of these things not through the lens of partisan politics but with a keen critical eye.”

Charles Krauthammer, opinion writer for The Washington Post: “They lose and immediately the chorus begins. Republicans must change or die. A rump party of white America, it must adapt to evolving demographics or forever be the minority. The only part of this that is even partially true regards Hispanics. They should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example). The principal reason they go Democratic is the issue of illegal immigrants. In securing the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney made the strategic error of (unnecessarily) going to the right of Rick Perry. Romney could never successfully tack back. For the party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word. Shock and awe — full legal normalization (just short of citizenship) in return for full border enforcement. . . . The country doesn’t need two liberal parties. Yes, Republicans need to weed out candidates who talk like morons about rape. But this doesn’t mean the country needs two pro-choice parties either. In fact, more women are pro-life than are pro-choice. The problem here for Republicans is not policy but delicacy — speaking about culturally sensitive and philosophically complex issues with reflection and prudence. Additionally, warn the doomsayers, Republicans must change not just ethnically but ideologically. Back to the center. Moderation above all! More nonsense. Tuesday’s exit polls showed that by an eight-point margin (51-43), Americans believe that government does too much. And Republicans are the party of smaller government. Moreover, onrushing economic exigencies — crushing debt, unsustainable entitlements — will make the argument for smaller government increasingly unassailable. So, why give it up? Republicans lost the election not because they advanced a bad argument but because they advanced a good argument not well enough. Romney ran a solid campaign, but he is by nature a Northeastern moderate. He sincerely adopted the new conservatism but still spoke it as a second language. . . . The answer to Romney’s failure is not retreat, not aping the Democrats’ patchwork pandering. It is to make the case for restrained, rationalized and reformed government in stark contradistinction to Obama’s increasingly unsustainable big-spending, big-government paternalism. Republicans: No whimpering. No whining. No reinvention when none is needed. Do conservatism but do it better. There’s a whole generation of leaders ready to do just that.”

Michael Gerson, opinion writer for The Washington Post: “[Edmund Burke] saw social change as a constant. The goal was to ease a nation’s way through change while retaining what is strongest in its traditions. Burke insisted that the present was better than the past and that the future could be better still if change were grounded in a society’s basic character. And he believed that politics had to suit a society’s real circumstances, not an idealized version of them. This is the conservative task over the next few years: not to preserve a rigid ideology but to reconstruct a political appeal along improved but principled lines. . . . Conservatives will need to define a role for government that addresses human needs in effective, market-oriented ways. Americans fear public debt, and they resent intrusive bureaucracies, but they do not hate government.”

George Will, opinion writer for The Washington Post: “America’s 57th presidential election revealed that a second important national institution is on an unsustainable trajectory. The first, the entitlement state, is endangered by improvident promises to an aging population. It has been joined by the political party, whose crucial current function is to stress the need to reform this state. And now the Republican Party, like today’s transfer-payment state, is endangered by tardiness in recognizing demography is destiny. . . . This election was fought over two issues as old as the Republic, the proper scope and actual competence of government. The president persuaded — here the popular vote is the decisive datum — almost exactly half the voters. The argument continues. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “Finality is not the language of politics.”

George Will, opinion writer for The Washington Post: “With much work — the most painful sort: thinking — to be done, conservatives should squander no energy on recriminations. Romney ran a gallant campaign. Imitation is the sincerest form of politics, and Republicans should emulate Democrats’ tactics for locating and energizing their voters. Liberals have an inherent but not insuperable advantage: As enthusiasts of government, to which many of them are related as employees or clients, they are more motivated for political activity than are conservatives, who prefer private spaces. Never mind. Conservatives have a commensurate advantage: Americans still find congenial conservatism’s vocabulary of skepticism about statism. And events — ongoing economic anemia; the regulatory state’s metabolic urge to bully — will deepen this vocabulary’s resonance.”

David Brooks, opinion writer for The New York Times: “During the 2012 campaign, Republicans kept circling back to the spot where government expansion threatens personal initiative: you didn’t build that; makers versus takers; the supposed dependency of the 47 percent. Again and again, Republicans argued that the vital essence of the country is threatened by overweening government. These economic values played well in places with a lot of Protestant dissenters and their cultural heirs. They struck chords with people whose imaginations are inspired by the frontier experience. But, each year, there are more Americans whose cultural roots lie elsewhere. Each year, there are more people from different cultures, with different attitudes toward authority, different attitudes about individualism, different ideas about what makes people enterprising. More important, people in these groups are facing problems not captured by the fundamental Republican equation: more government = less vitality. The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites. Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it. Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs. For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me.”

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