Why Mitt Romney Lost: A Simple, Overriding Theory

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If last night proved anything, it's that no serious political party in America can win an election by suppressing votes.

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Philip Andrews/Reuters

Mitt Romney lost because he was too conservative. Mitt Romney lost because he wasn't conservative enough. He lost because of union vote in Ohio. He lost because of the youth vote in Colorado. He lost because he backtracked on abortion and reproductive rights. He lost because he is a rich man who ran during rough economic times pledging to give tax breaks to other rich men. He lost because he didn't turn over his tax receipts. He lost because he is a Mormon. He lost because of Barack Obama. He lost because of Hurricane Sandy.

May I suggest instead a simple, elegant overriding theory on why we won't have a Romney Administration in 2013? No serious political party in America -- no legitimate party in any viable democracy -- can win an election by suppressing votes. So long as the Republican Party endorses (and enacts) voting laws designed to make it harder for registered voters to vote, so long as Republican officials like Ohio's Jon Husted contort themselves to interpret those laws in a restrictive fashion, the Republicans will continue to play a loser's game.

That's my theory, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. Having covered for the past two years the voting rights front in this epic election cycle, I have come to believe that the Republicans will begin to win presidential elections again only when they start competing for votes with the substance of their ideas. Instead of legislating on the theory that some people are too poor or too old or too lazy to vote, and for all their talk about freedom and the Tea Party, they should try to find ways to encourage the franchise in America, to nurture and protect it.

But I don't want to talk about the losers. There will be plenty of time for that. I want to talk instead about the winners of the election of 2012. They aren't just the returning members of Congress and the president and his cabinet. They aren't just the donors and functionaries who helped fund and operate the massively expensive reelection campaign. They are, to cite just one example, the tens of thousands of citizens all over the country who fought back against the greatest threat to civil rights since the 1960s.

If there is one thing this election has proven, if there is one thing I have come to know, it is that Americans don't like it when their right to vote is threatened. The very people whose votes the Republicans sought to suppress came out to vote. In places like Akron and Orlando and Denver and Milwaukee, they came. They waited in long lines and endured the indignities of poll workers. Yet they were not cowed. Today is their day. A day when they can look at one another and appreciate that they are truly a part of the history of civil rights in this country.

And they aren't just winners for enduring the systemic challenge to their voting rights. They are winners also because President Obama's reelection guarantees that the federal judiciary in four years will be far less conservative than it is today. This means, among many other things, that when the next generation of voter suppression laws come down the road, our nation's judges will be even more suited to stop them than they were this cycle. Just think about how many legitimate votes were saved in 2012 by federal judges.

And just think about how many more votes will be protected in 2014 and 2016 because of Tuesday's election. And how many more women will enjoy reproductive rights, and how many more consumers will have a break in court against big corporations, and how many more of our children will have cleaner air to breathe or water to drink because our environmental regulations will survive, and how many more of our fellow citizens will have health insurance. These are the winners of this election, whether they know it, or can accept it, or not.

In his first term, President Obama nominated 204 judges and the Senate approved 158 of them. There is no reason to think those numbers will be lower during the coming four years (in fact, I suspect they'll be higher). This means a judiciary that for the first time in a generation in this country will be slightly more Democratic in its appointments than it is Republican. As the Reagan appointees retire or die, in other words, they'll be replaced by Obama appointees. This is what this election means -- the absence of gridlock -- if it means nothing else.

What else does the Obama reelection mean? What does a more progressive judiciary mean? Let's get back to the winners. Jacqueline Kane is a winner today. She is an elderly woman in an assisted-living facility in Pennsylvania, a beloved mother who voted first in 1952 and still remembers the day. GOP lawmakers in her state tried to take away her right to vote this year with a photo identification law that would have required her, at age 82, to take a bus and wait in a line. Her daughter stood up for her. So did thousands of other Pennsylvanians.

You know who else is a winner today? Vietnam veteran Craig Debose, a longtime resident of South Carolina. Debose traveled 11 hours by train this summer to testify in Washington in the federal civil rights lawsuit brought against South Carolina for its restrictive photo identification law. A friendly lawyer asked him, "And why did you come all this way to tell the Court your story?" And Debose said: "So I can vote." This is a statement and a sentiment as American as any you can conceive. The Republicans cannot suppress this. Why would they even try?

I couldn't call Debose Tuesday night. He doesn't have a phone. Or a computer. Or a car, which is why he didn't have a driver's license, which is why South Carolina was trying to take away his right to vote. I'd like to think that Debose voted this year. And that he voted for the man who will appoint federal judges who will in turn vote to preserve our right to vote against the whims of the majority. But whether he did or he didn't, Debose's story has a happy ending. Fifty years after the war, his country had called him to serve once again. And, again, he had answered the call.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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