'The Party of Romney Is the Party of George W. Bush'

We're nearing the end of our One Day Only, All-Day Election Eve Festival of Posts™. We started many hours earlier with the last pre-election installment of Ask Dr. Popkin. We near the conclusion -- Dixville Notch, NH results have come in -- with some responses to that post. First, from Joseph Britt, a former Republican senate staffer who now lives in Wisconsin:

You can probably guess where I think Dr. Popkin's analysis, post today, is weak.  He overstates Mitt Romney's difficulties with the Republican Party's right wing, and understates the handicap imposed on Romney by the last Republican President.

This has been a recession election.  The incumbent President, whose term has coincided with most of the recession, should have been toast.  That he wasn't is due largely to the fact that much of the public still blames the recession on his predecessor.  They have ample reason to do so, but as I wrote you earlier this fall the Obama campaign has done little to press home that advantage.  Neither Obama or any of his surrogates have sought to identify either Romney or the Republican Party with the very unpopular George Bush personally; even the fact that Bush did not campaign for Romney while Bill Clinton was on the stump full-time for Obama has gone unmentioned.

I've never understood the Obama team's thinking on this point, but the view from the other side of the fence is that the GOP is still George Bush's party.  None of the ideas in this year's Republican campaign were distinctively Romney.  Every one of his major policy positions track directly back to Bush's platform in 2004; most of his campaign staff and advisers he inherited from Bush's campaigns and administration.  Neither he nor his running mate had any record of clashing with or even challenging Bush on anything important while Bush was President.  Perhaps most important, among the Republican Party factions Romney had to placate in his campaign for the party's nomination was the group of Bush alumni -- including alumni of Bush's campaigns who make up a large part of the GOP's permanent campaign infrastructure, and large Republican donors who profited from Bush's tax cuts -- that he would have alienated by distancing himself explicitly from Bush and his record.

With due respect to Dr. Popkin, he and many other commentators are too prone to exaggerate the importance of the social conservative faction in the Republican Party.  This is largely, I think, because a certain class of affluent white Americans has been insulated from the effects of the devastating recession that began in 2008, and from the human costs of the Iraq adventure and the Afghan muddle as well:  not their jobs, not their sons.  Much closer to home for them are issues like contraception, abortion, and gay marriage, on which their views are diametrically opposed to those of the full-mooners in the GOP right wing. 

I'm not arguing that social conservatives' influence in the Republican Party doesn't pose some serious problems for a national Republican candidate like Romney.  However, from the standpoint of political analysis, we have to remember that it wasn't Michele Bachman or Rick Santorum or that Akin person from Missouri that got all those Americans killed for no good reason in Iraq and brought on the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.  The main stream of the Republican Party -- George Bush's party -- did that.  Lots of Americans remember this, and while Obama's campaign did not make all it could have out of the memory, Romney was never able to move beyond it.

Romney's campaign, viewed as a whole, did much better than it should have.  Romney navigated the maze of obstacles to the GOP nomination without alienating any important Republican constituency, despite being stiff personally; from a liberal state, with a relatively liberal record in public office; a Mormon; and a virtual cypher in terms of his deeply felt beliefs on major public issues.  I'm not an admirer of the man, personally; I regard his momentary ascendancy in the GOP mostly as a symptom of the party's infirmities.  I just don't think Romney will lose this election primarily because of his campaign's mistakes.  That the journey to the White House was too far for Romney was a product of the way he chose to run, the only way that could have gotten someone like himself the Republican nomination.  He ran as the man who would say nothing that might offend any of his party's easily offended factions, so after Obama's ha;f-sedated performance in Denver opened the door for him, Romney couldn't take advantage.  He had nothing to say.

One closing thought:  a rule of modern American electoral politics is that a candidate must never admit to specific mistakes during the campaign.  Both candidates hurt themselves by following this rule as mechanically as they did.  Obama's economic advisers put out an analysis in early 2009 -- written before he even took office -- that underestimated how bad the recession was going to be.  Obama had little personal stake in it, but never stepped up to admit that the estimates made then had simply been wrong, which allowed Republicans to more effectively attack his administration's response to the recession as ineffective.  Romney for his part could have saved himself a lot of trouble by admitting he'd been mistaken about the bailout of GM and Chrysler; under the unique circumstances obtaining in 2009, no one would lend money to auto companies even with a government guarantee.  He couldn't bring himself to admit error, and it might have cost him Ohio.  The bipartisan campaign industry has succeeded in turning electoral politics from an art into a science, a process based on rules -- but that doesn't keep some of the rules from changing.

And, one more:

Thanks for again bringing us these analytical pieces from Dr. Popkin. However, I think his use of the post-1984 Democrats as an example of the likely path forward for the Republicans in the event of an Obama victory (and failure to gain control of the Senate) is flawed.

In 1984, the components making up the modern conservative media ecosystem (Fox News, conservative talk radio, the various Internet outlets, reinforced by social media) didn't exist. While I suspect he's correct about what the various local and state-level officials and candidates will want to do - break to the center - I think he discounts their ability to get an electorate to follow them. The inhabitants of the conservative bubble of today shake off any and every thing that conflicts with their worldview, and this contrary feeling is supported by the media feedback loop....

Unless something significant happens which proves the undoing of the conservative media machine, I fear rationality on the right will be a long, long time coming.