My sense, after the presidential election, is that our nation remains closely and deeply divided about what people and policies should guide us.
Most voters made up their minds about who they were going to vote for early on. The election was decided by a relatively small group of swing voters in battleground states, who made up their minds in the lasts days of the campaign, swayed by the media’s coverage of events and the candidates.
The campaign presented Americans with a clear choice between two smart, articulate, accomplished men who were standard-bearers for two very different visions for America. As the incumbent, the election was President Obama’s to lose, and he was vulnerable because of the dismal state of the economy. As the challenger, Mitt Romney had to overcome a protracted primary in which he was forced to the right.
Each side and its allies raised and spent an enormous amount of money. According to The New York Times, the candidates, their parties and their primary super PACs raised and spent about $1.8 billion through September, more than half of that by Romney. (By comparison, Sen. John McCain spent about $358 million to Obama’s $760 million in 2008.) Independent groups spent another half a billion or so on advertisements and other efforts, most of that on behalf of Romney.
Maybe that money was necessary to get people to the polls. Hopefully, it stimulated the economy. But it seems an inefficient, if not wasteful, way to win the votes of the 5 million to 10 million voters who decided the election.
The campaigns used much of that money to demonize their competition. The Romney camp portrayed the president as an apologist abroad and a facilitator of dependency at home. The Obama camp portrayed the challenger as a return to cowboy diplomacy, and an unprincipled if not bigoted, heartless capitalist.
The Real Clear Politics poll average showed the president maintaining about a 5 percentage point lead going into the final months of the campaign.
Notwithstanding Ron Paul supporters’ protests and Clint Eastwood’s last-minute improvisation, the Republican convention at the end of August was tightly scripted to humanize Romney and promote the American dream of the self-made person. By Sept. 5, the race was tied at 46.8 percent each. Then Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton gave the best speeches of either convention and the president re-established a lead.
It wasn’t until the debates that the candidates had an opportunity to address the public without the media as a filter. On Oct. 4, the first debate revealed that Romney was not the cold fish that he had been made out to be. The president had a hard time living up to the expectations that the media had created for him.
By Oct. 10, Romney had taken a 1.5 percentage point lead. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews was apoplectic. He berated the president for not being better prepared and more aggressive, for not paying attention to liberal pundits like himself (for whom dispatching Mitt Romney was first-grade stuff).
The Oct. 11 vice presidential debate was more notable for the participants’ attitude than their substance. Joe Biden shored up a shaken base by treating Paul Ryan with disdain and derision.
Then, during the Oct. 16 town hall debate on foreign policy, Romney accused the president of misleading the country into thinking that the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Lybia, was a demonstration against the YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims.” The president countered that he labeled the attack “an act of terror” the day after it happened and dared Romney to get the transcript. CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley stepped out of her role as moderator to support the president’s claim and put down Romney’s.
The transcript of the president’s remarks in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12 reveals that he called the attack “outrageous,” “senseless,” and “shocking” and “terrible” – but not an act of terrorism. He segued to an affirmation that the United States “respects all faiths,” and lamented “efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” The president went on to make a general defiance that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” before concluding by mourning the victims and blessing America.
In all, the president’s Rose Garden remarks were consistent with his administration’s initial position that the attack was a protest. That position persisted for weeks. It was consistent with its criticism of Romney for playing politics with the tragedy. It was consistent with the administration’s approach to the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, which was to hold a quiet, low-key observance, as if the underlying conflict had been laid to rest. It was consistent with the president’s policy of resetting the errors of his predecessor and with his re-election campaign theme that multilateralism and understanding work better.
On Oct. 19, the president regained a lead.
On Oct. 30, Hurricane Sandy battered the Mid-Atlantic states. Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were vastly superior to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. President Obama applied the lessons of Katrina and was immediately responsive. Chris Matthews rejoiced that the storm had given the president the opportunity to look like a leader.
On Oct. 31, the president took the lead he held through Election Day.
He won by about 3.5 million votes, or 2.8 percent of the popular vote. That margin of victory is in the bottom quartile, slightly better than George W. Bush’s 2.46 percent in 2004. It was magnified to a margin of about 25 percent by the winner-take-all approach of the electoral college. About 7 million fewer people voted than in 2008. Romney got about 800,000 fewer votes than McCain.
Notwithstanding the loss, I believe that the core Republican values of limited government and individual responsibility have enduring value and appeal. I believe that Mitt Romney was the best of the Republicans who sought the nomination, and believe that he was well-equipped to lead us at this time.
But the president’s narrative prevailed.
Now, despite our differences, we must work together, because we’ve got some serious problems to solve. Foremost among them is the fiscal cliff. Each side must make concessions. I would prefer to see more spending cuts than revenue increases, but my views – and the views of almost half of all voters – did not carry the day.