The conspiracy theories, the obviously unqualified primary candidates, the Clint Eastwood speech -- it all adds up to a lot of opportunities lost.
When the ballots are tallied on election night and pundits begin grappling with why it turned out as it did, a Democratic loss will be attributed to the economy. But a Republican loss? That will be more complicated to explain. Everyone will agree that the incumbent was beatable. So what went wrong? No single factor can explain something as complicated as a presidential election's outcome. Exit polls will tell us some of what happened. And there will be truth in many of the speculative theories that analysts offer about what the GOP campaign could've done better.
The best-remembered illustration dates back to the Republican National Convention, an event GOP officials scheduled in Florida during hurricane season, costing themselves a day. That misstep was severely exacerbated by what happened next. With primetime TV coverage a scarce commodity, the Romney campaign put Clint Eastwood on stage, sans script, and watched as he rambled for 12 minutes. Coverage of the speech dominated ensuing news cycles.
But the GOP had been squandering time long before that August spectacle. Think back 12 months. In August 2011, Sarah Palin visited the Iowa State Fair, creating a campaign-style video that deliberately led her most ardent supporters to believe that she'd enter the GOP primary. All told, she kept a portion of the Republican base guessing for months, soliciting their money for her own ends. Her time-wasting was magnified by the conservative media, which dedicated massive resources to defending what it alleged to be her honor. (Naturally, I most vividly remember all the time Andrew Breitbart spent lying about my coverage of a movie about her.)
It takes time every primary season to settle on the eventual candidate, and it isn't true to say all of it is wasted. But the attention lavished on Palin? The time and money invested in Herman Cain? The flirting with Newt Gingrich? These were unforced errors made by the conservative base, which includes a lot of time-wasters. How many total hours have American conservatives spent since 2009 trying to demonstrate that President Obama wasn't born in America? Can anyone argue that was the best use of Donald Trump's outsized media platform?
Birtherism wasn't the only time-suck of a theory. Months that could've been spent developing an effective foreign-policy critique were squandered on idiocy like the notion that Obama's actions abroad are best explained by an ideological Kenyan anti-colonialism that guides all his actions. Or the notion that he's allied himself with our Islamist enemy in a Grand Jihad against America. I am not referencing blog posts. Those theories were laid out at book length and given feature-length treatment in prominent right-leaning magazines. One even became a successful movie!
I haven't yet mentioned the most lunatic conspiracy theorist of them all. How many hours of Glenn Beck's chalkboard nonsense did Fox News broadcast during the Obama Administration?
Little wonder that, while the Romney campaign has been prepared with reasonably powerful critiques of the Obama economic record and an alternative domestic agenda (parts of the Tea Party movement proved worthwhile), it ends there. Its standard bearer was reduced in the foreign-policy debate to saying that he'd do all the same things as Obama, just better somehow. Even in Libya, where Obama launched a war without congressional approval, destabilizing a neighboring country and empowering Islamists, Romney couldn't land an effective blow.
The final mystery: Given that Romney ultimately moderated his rhetoric and positions, sounding like his old Massachusetts self during the three debates, why did he waste so much time getting there? Alternatively, why did the base insist that he sell himself as a "severe" conservative even after the primaries were over if they'd eventually relent? Demanding an ideologically pure nominee makes a lot more sense than demanding it just long enough to prevent him from maximizing his appeal, only to cave during the final weeks of the election. The base now has a standard bearer with the wiggle room of a moderate if he wins, but with a lesser chance of winning than if he'd tried on that strategy earlier on. I don't know if the timing was driven by Team Romney, the conservative base, or both, but it could prove the difference in the race.
Since 2009, the GOP wasted staggering amounts of time on off-putting conspiracy theories, squandering years that would've been better spent rigorously critiquing Obama; its base wasted months on obviously unqualified primary candidates, and failed to rally around Romney even when it was clear that he would be the nominee; if there was any benefit of doing so from their perspective, it was forcing Romney to the right in his positions and his rhetoric; but his time as a "severe" conservative was wasted too, because he made his final pitch to voters as a moderate.
Again, it may all prove beside the point. Even winning campaigns make mistakes, and in victory, the critics all turn their attention to the mistakes of the guy who lost. But if Obama wins on election day, the GOP should reflect on all the time it wasted and the missed opportunities that resulted.